FDNY’s Engine 82 and Ladder 31 of “The Big House” in the South Bronx, New York, on April 3, 1972. Photo courtesy of FDNY Flickr.
New York City firefighters refer to the late 1960s and early 1970s as the “war years.” That time of extraordinary firefighting action was captured in a 1972 television documentary by the BBC, Man Alive: The Bronx Is Burning.
“That’s where they got a lot of fire duty,” Joe Downey, the current New York City Fire Department battalion chief of the Rescue Battalion within Special Operations Command, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “The late ’60s, early ’70s.”
The television program captured raw footage of the dangerous conditions faced by firefighters from the “Big House” of the FDNY. Located on Intervale Avenue in the South Bronx, FDNY Battalion 27, Ladder 31, and Engine 82 — the so-called Big House — was made famous by the harrowing exploits documented in FDNY firefighter Dennis Smith’s 1972 book, Report From Engine Co. 82.
Similarly, the BBC documentary showed global audiences why FDNY firefighters from the Big House were working in the busiest fire district in the world.
And they certainly had their hands full. On average during the “war years,” the FDNY responded to an estimated 250,000 calls per year — about three times the rate of the London Fire Brigade. For its part, the Big House handled more than 10,000 of those annual calls, roughly equating to one emergency response every 45 minutes, every day and night of the year.
“The fire statistics for New York are staggering,” the BBC narrator says in the 1972 documentary. “New York has more fires than Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia put together. […] Most of the fires they fight are in abandoned buildings, many of them started deliberately. All are dangerous.”
While the nearly 50-year-old documentary highlights the dangers New York City’s firefighters consistently faced in the line of duty, the noticeable lack of bunker gear or proper safety equipment proves how far the fire service has evolved since those frightful days.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.