The Chicago Fire Department is the municipal organization charged with fire suppression, rescue, and providing emergency medical services in Chicago, Illinois. The Department has been in existence since 1858, and is currently the second-largest in the United States.

The first fire company formed in Chicago was called the "Washington Volunteers," who started in 1832. The next year, the city council passed an ordinance naming Benjamin Jones Fire Warden, charging him with ensuring that buildings in the city followed fire safety laws. A year later, the city was divided into four fire wards, each with its own warden, who apart from being responsible for enforcing regulations could also call on citizens to assist in putting out blazes. 1835 saw the passage of the fire-bucket ordinance, which required one suitable fire bucket per fireplace or stove in a building. Owners of the buckets were not only responsible for keeping those buckets within easy reach so as to put out fires in their homes and businesses, but they were also required to bring their bucket and help fight fires if needed. The city's new bucket brigade was called the "Fire Guards Bucket Company." That same year, "Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1" went into service, and the city named the first chief of the Chicago Fire Department, Hiram Hugunin. The Department's engine house sat where City Hall now stands and housed two hand-engines. The Department became a paid organization in 1858, at which time steam engines and an alarm telegraph system were purchased. Other advancements were made in the years that followed, including the installation of alarm pull-boxes in 1865, but the biggest advancements to date came in 1871.

It was in this year that the Great Chicago Fire occurred. The city had been experiencing a drought for the past few weeks, and late into the evening the day before, firefighters had fought a large blaze in the city's downtown area. Only a few hours after that fire had been contained (a point when much of the city's fire apparatus had yet to be put back into service, and most of the firemen were exhausted), alarms came in for the great fire. Making matters worse, the fire quickly hit the pumping station, effectively ending any serious firefighting efforts. The fire was so extensive that it took two days for the ruins to cool, and even then, when safes and other airtight containers were opened, their contents burst into flames due to the introduction of oxygen. This fire demonstrated that the Department was sorely in need of upgrades.

After that point, the Chicago Fire Department was completely reorganized. The city was divided into 18 battalions, each of which had three engines, and was under the command of a Battalion Chief. This organization system is still in use today. Three tugboats were purchased and turned into makeshift engines for the time being. New engines and trucks were also added, and the departments ranks were increased.

In 1878, Captain David Kenyon, a veteran of the city's volunteer force and a paid fireman working at Engine Company No. 5, invented a device that is now a facet of almost every fire department in the country: the fire pole. Designed as a way to allow firefighters to get from their sleeping quarters on the second floor of a firehouse to the engines or trucks at ground level faster, the pole was mounted so that firemen could slide down from their bunk area and end up right next to their equipment. The first pole was installed at Engine 21's house, and more were added across the city.

5 February 1923, fire box 846 was pulled, and Engine Company No. 11, a horse-drawn engine, left its station. This was the last call ever answered by a horse-powered company in the city. While Engine 11 was fighting the fire, its motorized replacement moved into the bay, and that marked the point where the Chicago Fire Department no longer used horse power for its vehicles.

The Department continued to expand, with new additions such as ambulances, chemical rigs, floodlight wagons, and smoke ejectors. The Fire Commissioner at the time, Albert Goodrich, had a nautical background and decided that all fire apparatus in the City of Chicago should feature at least one red light on the left side of the vehicle and a green light on the right, a lighting scheme that is still in place today. By this point, the city had expanded to 28 battalions, so the battalions were then grouped into six larger districts. Battalion chiefs received new Model "A" Fords, painted red on the bottom and black on top (the black tops were the result of the material used for the cars' roofs, which could not be painted). This black-and-red paint scheme has also carried on through today.

In 1936, the last of the city's wooden firehouses were demolished, replaced by brick buildings built by the WPA. Also during the thirties, loudspeakers were installed in all fire stations, allowing specific directions to be given to responding companies. In 1943, after returning from military service overseas, firefighter Joseph McCarthy began a project to reorganize the city's ambulance services. He started with four war-time ambulance and only a few medics, but began to expand the service over time.

KSC711, the Chicago Fire Department's dispatch channel, went on the air in 1952 with only one frequency and no repeaters. In 1957, following Robert Quinn's appointment to Fire Commissioner, radio units were added to all fire apparatus. A year later, the snorkel was brought into service. Resembling a piece of construction equipment known as a cherry picker, the snorkel unit featured a truck body with a two-part arm on top. At the end of the arm was a bucket from which firemen could enter the upper levels of burning structures or direct water downwards or into upper windows. The snorkel units were eventually paired with rescue trucks, creating the snorkel squad unit, which still exists today. Other developments in the late 1950s included the purchase of trucks with booster tanks holding 500 gallons, and deluge units dubbed "Big Mo" and "Big John," which took several hose inputs and directed them into one large output.

The city's Office of Fire Inspection, which is responsible for the investigation of fires, was created in 1958. Before that point, no official investigations were ever made into the causes of fires by the department. The Bureau's work since then has been especially useful both for preventing future fires as well as aiding insurance companies investigating blazes. In 1961, the old Drill School was replaced with the Fire Academy, which was responsible for training candidates and providing refresher courses to current firemen.

Since that point, new bureaus (including Air-Sea Rescue, which uses boats, helicopters, and a SCUBA team) were created, 911 was instituted as the city's new emergency number (replacing 312-FI-7-1313 for fires and 312-PO-5-1313 for police), and the Emergency Medical Services department was upgraded from 16 Cadillac ambulances to 43 modular vans (Type II by current standards). In the midst of this EMS transition, women were allowed to become paramedics.

In 1980, the city saw its first firefighter strike. The strike began on Valentine's Day and lasted until 9 March. Contract negotiations, however, were not completed until 1982. That same year, portable radios (colloquially known as walkie-talkies, though emergency personnel will never call them by that name) were introduced, and the department was reorganized again, this time into the six districts and 24 battalions in existence today. Computer Aided Dispatch was started in 1984, the two current alarm offices (Main on the North Side and Englewood on the South side) went into service, and a Hazardous Incident Team was formed to deal with HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials) situations. The late 1980s also saw all fire companies being trained in Basic Life Support, and all fire apparatus were equipped with resuscitation and first aid supplies. In addition, five ambulances were added, bringing the city's total to 54.

Throughout the 1990s, the Chicago Fire Department added such things as the Personal Alert Safety System alarms: individual units given to each firefighter which, if the firefighter remained still for more than 30 seconds, would both flash and emit an audible alarm in order to aid in rescuing trapped or injured firefighters. The system was later mounted in firefighters' SCBA (air mask) units, and was connected to a radio transmitter to alert dispatchers if a firefighter needed assistance. The city's 911 Communications Center was inaugurated in 1996, and the telegraph dispatch system that had previously been used was officially replaced. The next year, a program known as the Advanced Life Support (ALS) Engine program began, where certain fire engines were staffed with personnel cross-trained as firefighters and paramedics, and equipped with ALS medical supplies. These units respond to medical emergencies before ambulances, and serve the same purpose as the Medic Squads seen in some cities. The service started with four engines, but has since been expanded to 35.

Finally, in 2000, the Department introduced Basic Life Support (BLS) ambulances. Before this point, all ambulances in the city were certified as ALS units. In order to reduce the burden on these ambulances, 12 new BLS units were added. Instead of being staffed by paramedics, and the ALS units are, the BLS units are staffed by regular firefighters, who as a part of their standard training are also Basic Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT-Bs). These 12 units do not carry all of the advanced equipment found on an ALS ambulance (such as cardiac resuscitation drugs and specialty medications), but a paramedic from an ALS engine can take the engine's ALS equipment onto a BLS ambulance (essentially turning the BLS unit into an ALS one) if ALS-level care is needed.



The chain of command of the Chicago Fire Department is as follows (in decreasing order of rank):

Fire Suppression and Rescue

Emergency Medical Services

Exempt Rank Members

  • Fire Commissioner (appointed by the Mayor)
  • 1st Deputy Fire Commissioner (appointed by the Fire Commissioner)
  • Deputy Fire Commissioner (5 positions, appointed by the Fire Commissioner)
    • Bureau of Administrative Services
    • Bureau of Operations
    • Bureau of Fire Prevention
    • Bureau of Employee Relations
    • Bureau of Support Services
  • Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioners (3 positions, appointed by the Fire Commissioner)
    • Bureau of Operations - Fire
    • Bureau of Operations - EMS
    • Bureau of Support Services
  • District Chief (6 districts, appointed by the Fire Commissioner)
  • Deputy Chief Paramedic (3 positions, appointed by the Fire Commissioner, one for the North Side, one for the South Side, and one for Field Support)
  • Deputy District Chief (6 districts, appointed by the Fire Commissioner)
  • Asst. Deputy Chief Paramedic (6 positions, appointed by the Fire Commissioner, assists the Deputy Chief Paramedics)


The Fire Department currently operates 129 engine companies (35 of which are ALS-equipped, and one of which, Engine Company No. 58, is the city's fireboat), 62 ladder companies (of which there are 11 tower ladders and 1 aerial tower), 3 snorkel squads, 9 Airport Crash Units (also called Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting--ARFF--units), 59 ALS ambulances, 12 BLS ambulances, two helicopters, a SCUBA team, and two Hazardous Materials companies. Additional equipment includes deluge units, air bottle trucks, command vans, triage vans, decontamination units, smoke ejectors, spotlight wagons, a collapse rescue team, dry chemical and expansion foam units, wreckers, and numerous reserve units.

Alarm Levels

When the Chicago Fire Department gets a call, it is classified in one of four ways. If someone calls 9-1-1 and reports a fire, a Still Alarm is sounded. Initially, 2 engines, 2 trucks, and a Battalion Chief are sent. If a second source (either another 9-1-1 caller, or the firefighters who arrive on scene) can confirm the fire, additional equipment is sent. In the case of a Still Alarm at a high rise, the response is doubled, EMS (which includes both ambulances and EMS Field Officers) is added automatically. A Still and Box Alarm is a step up from a Still Alarm, and is usually called in by a firefighter or command officer on scene. Occasionally, a Still and Box alarm will be automatically activated when a call is received, but this tends to happen only when there is a report of a trapped civilian, a multiple structure fire, a large commercial fire, or some major incident (building collapse or train derailment, for example). Finally, a Box Alarm is initiated when a fire alarm is pulled in a building whose fire alarm system is wired to the Office of Fire Alarms (movie theaters, nursing homes, schools, and other public places). These are often prank or accidental calls, and only a small initial response is sent. If it turns out that there is a working fire, the situation is upgraded to a Still and Box Alarm.

After an initial alarm is sounded, extra equipment is sometimes needed. In Chicago, the first "extra alarm" is a 2-11, a call for an additional 4 engines, 2 trucks, 2 Battalion Chiefs, media affairs representatives, and one of each of the following: tower ladder, District Chief, a truck with replacement breathing equipment. If more assistance is needed, a 3-11 alarm is sounded, bringing in 4 more engines, as well as an Assistant Deputy or Deputy Commissioner. A 4-11 alarm brings in yet another 4 engines, along with the city's Fire Commissioner. The final extra alarm is a 5-11 alarm, which calls for 4 more engines. Any blaze that requires something beyond the 16 extra engines called in so far is called a 5-11 plus X specials.

Traditions and Quirks

As mentioned in the history section, the Chicago Fire Department has built up several traditions over the years.

  • All engine and truck companies in the department have at least one green warning light mounted on the front right of the vehicle, directly opposite a corresponding red light. Modeled off of the marker lights used on ships (where a red light is used to mark the port, of left side of the vessel, while a green light is used to mark the starboard, or right side), the system was thought up by Albert Goodrich, who became fire commissioner in 1927. His family owned a steamship line, and he took the lighting idea from his experience there. Though not especially useful in firefighting (the marker lights' purpose in the nautical world is to help ships pass each other at night or in foggy weather) it has nonetheless stuck, and is a distinctive feature of the city's engines and trucks. The tradition has since been expanded to cover the lights on the front of firehouses (again with a red light on the station's left and a green one on the right), just as red and green lights are used to mark slips and passages through breakwaters for boats.
  • The fire pole, a tradition in almost every fire department, was invented in Chicago. The original purpose was to reduce the time it took firefighters to get from the second floor of firehouses (where they lived and slept) down to the ground (where their equipment was). Nowadays, they are not used very often, but are usually still installed for tradition's sake.
  • All of Chicago's fire engines and trucks are red with black-topped cabs. This color scheme was started in the 1920s, when 28 Model "A" Fords were purchased for the Department's battalion chiefs. The vehicles came with roofs made of a tar composite that couldn't be painted, and so that portion of the vehicle was left black, while the bottom was painted red. Nowadays, the section of the cab of fire engines and trucks from just below the bottom of the windshield all the way up to the roof, extending back to the end of the cab is left black, while the lower section is red with a white stripe running along the sides of the unit, about a foot from its bottom. This paint scheme applies to all fire engines and trucks except those assigned to the city's airports (which are painted day-glow yellow) and Engine Company No. 58, the city's fireboat, which is all red.
  • Until recently, Chicago firefighters wore the three-quarters boots and jacket (think tall boots with a trench coat style jacket) instead of the bunker gear used by most departments nowadays. However, concerns over the safety of trench coats and boots prompted the switch to bunker gear.
  • For many years, the Chicago Fire Department used telegraphs to send out alarms (which was commonplace before radio dispatching). To simplify matters, each unit was given a three-digit code. Since the advent of radios and Computer Aided Dispatch, the need for unique signatures for each company and special officer has decreased, but some units still keep their special numbers. These include the Deputy Fire Commissioners, chiefs, command vans, EMS commanders and field officers, fire marshals, HAZMAT units, Internal Affairs investigators, the Airport Crash Trucks, Air-Sea Rescue units, repair vehicles, training units, and certain special pieces of equipment like the spotlight wagons. A list of former and current apparatus signatures is available at http://plaws.net/scan/IL/cfd-signature.html for the curious. One should note that this list is not complete; BLS ambulances were added after the numbering system fell out of use, and as a result, there is not a block of numbers reserved for them.
  • As of 2009, no Chicago Fire Department ambulances (including ALS units) carry equipment to take 12-lead EKGs, or electrocardiograms. EKGs are used to diagnose certain types of cardiac conduction problems, including a type of heart attack known as a STEMI, or ST-Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction. In a STEMI, a section on the EKG tracing, known as the ST segment, is elevated from the baseline in certain leads, and depressed in others. Patients experiencing a STEMI need to be taken to hospitals with specialized facilities (such as a cath lab), and without the capability to perform a 12-lead EKG, Chicago Fire Department paramedics are unable to conclusively determine in the field if a patient is having a STEMI. Currently, Chicago is one of the few major EMS providers which does not carry equipment to perform 12-lead EKGs; officials have stated that it would cost about $4 million to add 12-lead capability to Chicago's ambulances, and that this capability will be added when additional facets of the EMS system are upgraded.


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