Jacksonville's first organized fire fighting efforts took place about 1850 and involved digging wells and stockpiling ladders and other equipment at three intersections. A fire bell was hung from a five-story tower built over a well at Newnan and Adams streets. If a fire broke out, someone would run for the bell while yelling 'fire.' The yelling and clanging would bring out the town's able-bodied men who would form lines to pass water buckets from the wells to the fire.
The city soon acquired its first fire engine, an apparatus with handles on each side for pumping, but lost it to the flames in a big fire in 1854.
The city's first organized fire fighting force formed on Jan. 10, 1868, when the Friendship Hook and Ladder Co., a group of volunteers, began providing fire protection. Several other volunteer companies formed by 1870 to became part of the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Department. The city provided little support to the volunteers, who often battled in the streets over access to fire hydrants while buildings they were supposed to save burned, and the organizations gradually lost members and began to disband. In December 1885, a disastrous fire that lead to the death of a volunteer firefighter may have been the final event to convince the City Council that it needed a paid department.
On April 20, 1886, the City Council passed an ordinance establishing a paid fire department, and on July 15, the city hired its first 20 paid firefighters.
That year three staffed stations and a fire chief established a legacy protecting a core city area of approximately 39 square miles.
Station 1 was located on Forsyth Street just off of Pine Street, which is now known as Main Street. Station 2 was located at Pine and Ashley streets. Station 3 was located in the 500 block of East Bay Street. All three stations burned down in the Great Fire of 1901 and were later rebuilt.
Station 1 was rebuilt at Adams and Ocean streets. Station 2 was rebuilt at the same location. Station 3 was rebuilt on Catherine Street near its original location. Bricks salvaged from buildings destroyed in the fire were used to construct the stations.
Station 3 became known as the Catherine Street station. It housed a new 1902 American LaFrance Steam Engine and was staffed by four African-American firefighters. One of the first Jacksonville firefighters to die in the line of duty was an African-American by the name of Henry J. Bradley.
The Catherine Street station is registered with the Jacksonville Historical Society and with the Northeast Florida African-American Historical Society. Today the station has been relocated to Metropolitan Park, where it now serves as the department's Fire Museum.
The Great Fire of 1901 started at on May 3 when a cinder from a nearby chimney landed on moss and fiber drying in the sun at the Cleveland Fiber Factory at Union and Davis streets. Eighteen-mile-per-hour westerly winds fanned the flames, and the fire and destruction did not stop until it reached what is now known as the St. Johns River.
By the time it was over, the fire had destroyed 146 city blocks and 2,368 buildings. Property damage totaled $15 million. The official death count tallied two people from burns, three from drowning and two others from fright. Some survivors questioned those numbers, saying there was no way of knowing how many people actually died in the smoke and flames or drowned fleeing in the river.
In 1962, Jacksonville Fire Department Asst. Fire Chief James Dowling, Jr., began a push to end the practice of funeral homes using hearses to provide ambulance service to the city. He argued that the funeral homes were more concerned with having funerals than with providing transportation of the sick and injured to the hospital.
In November 1967, Mayor Hans Tanzler placed emergency ambulance service permanently in the care of the Jacksonville Fire Department. The Rescue Division began with six station wagons, each staffed by a chief and two firefighters, equipped with first aid kits and folding Army cots for stretchers. Within a few months the department equipped and staffed six new modular transport vehicles for continuous 24-hour service. Crews soon became aware that they were in over their heads due to the nature of the calls, a large proportion of which were cardiac related, so the department connected with area doctors eager to provide better training. With advanced medical training and better equipment, the Jacksonville Fire Department saved more lives, and Jacksonville became known as the 'safest city in the world to have a heart attack.'
In 1968, the Jacksonville City and Duval County governments consolidated. Today, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department provides fire and emergency medical services to a metropolitan, suburban and rural area that encompasses an area of approximately 840 square miles with a population of more than 850,000. Notable accomplishments of the JFRD are:
1. Establishing one of the first Advanced Life Support (ALS) service in the nation;
2. Establishing the first Hazardous Materials team in 1977;
3. Becoming the first fire department to successfully extinguish a fully involved petroleum tank fire.
Today, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department is one of the largest fire and rescue departments in Florida. It is comprised of five divisions: Operations, Rescue, Training, Fire Prevention, and Emergency Preparedness. These divisions control the functions of 58 Fire and Rescue locations including four marine companies, a Special Operations and Technical Rescue team, two Hazardous Materials Teams, 49 Advanced Life Support transport units, 55 engine companies, 13 truck companies, Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 5 and other specialty teams.
The department has a professional career force of approximately 1,400 diverse men and women of different ethnicities, religious beliefs, economic and educational backgrounds. JFRD is one of the premier fire organizations in the country.