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Our History

Old Miami
Old Miami
On July 17, 1898 The City of Miami Fire Department was formally created when five men gathered in a Miami beer parlor to remedy the outrageous cost of fire insurance in the city. The premiums in Miami were the highest in the nation, with annual rates at eight percent of a structure’s value. This was due to the fact that the all-wooden city had virtually no fire service, and just eighteen months earlier on Christmas Eve of 1896 - the year the City was founded - half of downtown Miami had burned to the ground. In order to bring insurance costs down, the men agreed to form the Miami Fire Department. Those in attendance became the first volunteer firefighters. One of the men, Charles H. Garthside, was elected as the City's first fire chief.

Over the next hundred years, the rudimentary fire service grew into a world-classprofessional department with a progressive outlook - constantly at the forefront of advancing technology. The Miami Fire Department began the turn of the 20th Century without a history, but the profound changes it underwent during the age of advancing technology forced it to look towards the future for its traditions. Today the City of Miami Department of Fire-Rescue retains a proud history of being at the forefront of fire-rescue developments.

The Early Years

The early years of The Miami Fire Department were crude – with the first fire fighting equipment being only buckets and hand hose reels that those five volunteers stored in a makeshift station on Miami Avenue between 12th and 13th Street. In 1904 the first fire truck was purchased. It was a horse-drawn American-LaFrance pumper called The Dan Hardee – named after the chief at the time.
Henry Chase
Henry Chase

That same year, the first paid firefighter was hired to drive the "truck". He was a skinny 18 year-old named Henry Chase with virtually no experience. Because Henry was so young and unproven, the other firefighters, all volunteers, went on strike to oppose his appointment. However, when the next alarm came in, many of those same firemen jumped on the apparatus Henry was driving and let him drive them to the fire. On arrival, they learned that it was a false alarm called in by Chief Hardee to instill their confidence in the youthful Chase – effectively breaking their “strike.”

Gus, Harry, and the pumper
Gus, Harry, and the pumper
Henry worked 365 days a year on an annual salary of $540 – nearly ten percent of the department’s $6,000 budget. His job was to harness the two horses, Gus and Harry, to the pumper. He drove them to the fire, where the other firemen would meet them.

Henry Chase eventually became Chief of the department in 1909, two years after the construction of a three-bay station on land donated by Henry Flagler. In 1911, Chief Chase purchased the department’s first motorized apparatus and installed 14 fire alarm boxes to serve as the City’s fire communication system. It was called the “Gamewell System.”

A second fire station was built in 1915, and the volunteers were let go – making it a fully professional department of 23 firemen. By 1916 the city also had a high-pressure water system installed, and the last horse drawn units were disbanded, also making the department completely motorized.

A few firsts...

Henry Chase left the fire department in 1917 to enter private business but returned as Fire Chief from 1935 to 1953. He ushered in an age when the Miami Fire Department would become a leader in the fire-rescue profession, beginning with a tradition of being first in many areas. The City of Miami became:

  • The first fire department in the United States to equip all apparatuses with 2-way radios
  • The first fire department to employ fog nozzles
  • The first fire department to equip all firefighters with gas masks
In 1956, under Chief Newton L. Wheeler, it became the first department to install an emergency telephone alarm system, using telephone alarm boxes to replace the Gamewell lever-box system.

LL Kenney
LL Kenney
The Miami Fire Department was also the first department to use “wet water", a firefighting additive that is mixed with water to allow better penetration of burning items. The Miami Fire Department invented a “wet-water” dispensing system that was modified to fit every truck. Due to corrosion problems, it has since been removed from use, but it was an important experiment. With these improvements and more, the City of Miami Fire Department would finally receive its Class One rating in 1964 from the Fire Insurance Office under Chief LL Kenney.

Perhaps the most notable firsts occurred in medical-rescue – where developments were so profound, that they actually expanded the functions of the fire service, changed the name of The Miami Fire Department to The Miami Department of Fire-Rescue, and influenced emergency medical systems world-wide. Such advancements included:
  • Use of doctors in conjunction with firefighter-paramedics in the field
  • Use of radios to communicate between doctors and firefighters
  • Use of a radio telemetry system to transmit electrocardiogram (EKG) readouts
The birth of Rescue

Rescue 1
Rescue 1
The Rescue Division of The Miami Fire Department was formally created in 1939, but its initial function was to give first aid to firefighters injured in the line of duty, not to treat citizens. The first rescue truck for public use, Rescue One, appeared in 1941 at Station One. It was basically a special extrication truck with advanced first aid capability. Rescue One carried heavy equipment, such as pulleys, hoists and crow-bars, as well as some basic first aid supplies, but had virtually no patient transport capability.

The Rescue Division was not only limited to just one vehicle, but its service was equally as restricted – extricating victims from catastrophes, but providing little beyond basic first aid. The transportation was provided by private ambulance services, which performed “snatch and grabs,” or basic transportation with no advanced life support. In the most severe cases, the firefighters would ride in the back of the ambulance with the patients, but they would still provide nothing beyond rudimentary first aid – or band-aids and oxygen.

Incredibly, the ambulance system was provided by the funeral homes, and the ambulances themselves resembled hearses. Patients were taken directly to the funeral home if they died en-route. A series of mass casualty incidents – plane crashes that occurred every two or three years in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – exposed the need for improving this system. Because those emergencies stretched the local rescue capabilities, they motivated the Miami-area fire departments to explore ways of improving this system.

Dr. Nagel
Dr. Nagel
The most influential person to change this system walked into Miami’s Station One in 1964. He came to teach the crew of Rescue One more advanced first aid and a novel resuscitation technique called “closed chest cardiac massage.” The man was Dr. Eugene Nagel. The cardiac technique, which had been invented just three years earlier, would later become known as cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Dr. Nagel, a University of Miami physician and Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, was a fervent advocate of this experimental technique.

Dr. Nagel was originally interested in combating what was considered to be a major epidemic in the United States -- pre-hospital cardiac arrest. Since the CPR technique was so new, he starting by teaching and testing the procedure on dogs. The animals would be shocked into cardiac arrest, then resuscitated using the new technique of chest compressions and forced ventilations. He found the firefighters to be quick learners and soon began teaching even more procedures that he deemed essential for what he was calling his Cardiac Care Unit.

Miami Fire-Rescue
Dr. Nagel reasoned that the best people waiting for emergencies were firefighters, and he had faith that they could learn enough to intervene with advanced life support to save lives. With this trust in firefighters, he went to Station One to apply his team concept in Miami, with one innovation – using firefighters as the eyes and ears of physicians.

The Miami Fire Department was the perfect place to implement his plan. The Department had already made history by becoming the first fire department in the United States to use radios on all its trucks for communication – actually replacing the bugle, or megaphone device, as the fire-ground communication system. This is still such an historical symbol of firefighting that it is used as insignia on uniforms today worldwide.

Manuel Padron Manuel Padron
Manuel Padron

Although Rescue One at that time was just a renovated van equipped with an old doctor’s bag and expired medications, Dr. Nagel found a group of firefighters dedicated to improving the rescue system. Those men included a member of the original Rescue One, Manuel Padron, who pioneered the rescue system as we know it today; Randy Boaz, who fathered paramedic instruction in South Florida; and Charlie Mathews, who became one of the country’s first paramedics.

Expanding the role of the Fireman

Miami Fire-Rescue
The biggest obstacle in Dr. Nagel's plans of increased medical responsibilities for firemen was doubt from the medical community. They believed that firemen could not be entrusted with the increased procedures and liability. As a result, the 30 original firemen selected for this rescue experiment were extremely careful not to make any mistakes. Soon, Dr. Nagel began teaching many more techniques that were previously the domain of medical doctors. After teaching CPR and how to splint bones, he taught how to inject intravenous fluids, administer a complex array of medications, defibrillate the heart, and finally, how to intubate, or open an airway with a mechanical device called a laryngoscope.

Dr. Nagel was so confident that the firefighters were competent enough to handle these new techniques that he was willing to go to great lengths to convince others to give them the same level of trust and added responsibility. In order to prove to the City Manager that the firefighters were suitable for an expanded medical role, he actually went into his office, laid down on his desk and allowed the firefighters he had trained to intubate his own airway with a laryngoscope – all in front of the City Manager.

Miami's role in EKG advancement

Soon, the department would make more history. The City of Miami Fire Department was the first in the nation to make radio contact between hospitals and firefighters in the field in 1965. Around this time another Miami doctor, University of Miami clinical professor Dr. Jim Hirschman, was also making medical history with radios. Dr. Hirschman combined his radio expertise with a career as a distinguished cardiologist. With this background, Dr. Hirschman assisted surgeons off the coast of Africa aboard the medical ship, the SS Hope, by radio. Dr. Hirschman evaluated cardiac signals sent from the ship’s EKG to his office in Miami, and was then able to analyze the patient’s situation and transmit life-saving advice to the doctors who performed the emergency surgery.

Dr. Nagel read about Dr. Hirschman’s success, and when he learned that he also lived in Miami, he contacted the accomplished cardiologist and asked him to devise a similar “telemetry system” to help The Miami Fire Department. Dr. Hirschman then worked with City of Miami radio expert, Ben Denby, to devise a more thorough version of his “telemetry system.” It was a radio transmitter that used a modulator to convert the heart’s electrical signal into an audio tone in order to transmit it over the radio.

Soon The Miami Fire Department made history again when it became the first department in the country to use radio transmissions of EKGs sent from firefighters in the field to doctors in a hospital base. As impressive as this was, it was not so helpful in treating the patients, because there was little the firefighters could do legally in the way of treatments. However, the radio transmissions did show that many patients died who could have been revived with an electrical cardiac shock called defibrillation.

A defibrillation hadn’t been performed in the field before, because conditions had to be just right. The patient had to be without any life signs, or physically “dead,” so that firefighters could not be charged with causing a death. Moreover, the doctors in the hospital had to be absolutely sure of this with the flawless EKG transmission from the field.

In June, 1969, The Miami Fire Department became the first fire department in the United States to successfully revive a lifeless patient in the field through defibrillation. By using radio transmission of the EKG, combined with verbal radio contact with doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital and the University of Miami School of Medicine, the firefighters were authorized to “shock” the first patient in the United States who was revived from a lifeless state. This development was soon done on the fire departments of Los Angeles, Seattle, and other metropolitan departments.

New medical capabilities

Dr. Nagel then asked Dr. Hirshman to both devise a curriculum to teach the new “paramedic” courses and to draft the law that would give firefighters the legal right to implement the new medical responsibilities they were being entrusted with. This was then presented to one of the state legislators and led to the creation of law 10-D-66.This is the legal cornerstone of pre-hospital emergency care in the State of Florida.

Miami Fire-Rescue
The Miami Fire Department also became the first department in the nation to use the MAST suit, or Military Anti-Shock Trousers, an inflatable set of pants that forces blood from the legs to the more vital regions of the body. It has the same immediate effect of transfusing two units of blood, and it benefits patients going into hemorrhagic shock, which is shock due to blood loss. In 1972, the U.S. Military asked The Miami Fire Department to test the MAST suits in Miami. They were credited with saving many lives, and it was adopted nationally.

Chief Herman Brice, (78-84) further expanded the department’s medical capabilities by ensuring that every truck on The Miami Fire Department have medical treatment capabilities and that all firefighters be cross-trained in emergency medicine. All apparatuses were equipped with medical gear, and every Firefighter was given medical training.

Herman Brice
Herman Brice
The medical director from 1978-86, Dr. Bernie Elser, is also credited with placing many new medications on the trucks, further increasing paramedic capabilities in the field. He also trained the paramedics in the use of these new medications, as well as rode the rescue trucks himself. In addition, he implemented new approaches for trauma patients with an emphasis on early treatment in the field.

Notwithstanding the local notoriety and the international reputation, perhaps the most meaningful praise for the development of the modern rescue system is attributed to Manny Padron, who is credited with telling Dr. Nagel, “Thank you for teaching us more than just letting the patients die in our arms.”

From past to present

The City of Miami Fire Department would ultimately change its name to The City of Miami Fire-Rescue Department due to the changes made in the firefighting service. The name Fireman changed to Firefighter due to the inclusion of females. Minorities would also join the ranks of the Miami Fire-Rescue Department and quickly rise to the rank of Chief – making significant contributions to the department.

Technological developments were a big part of the improvements being made in the national fire service and The City of Miami Fire Rescue Department would embrace the rapidly advancing technology of the 20th Century and become a leader in the fire-rescue service. The City of Miami Fire Rescue Department would also become one of the busiest fire departments in the United States. In 1995 it was the busiest fire-rescue department in the country based on alarms per firefighter.

Looking ahead

Much has changed since the turn of the last century, from a bucket brigade to a world-class fire-rescue department with expanded responsibilities and many firsts in the fire-rescue service.

The City of Miami Fire-Rescue Department looks to the future with optimism and hopes to play as significant a role in contributing to fire-rescue service developments in the future as it did in the twentieth century.

Miami Fire-Rescue Then and Now

Written by Michael Trebilcock


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