Honoring Harold B. Hairston: Philadelphia’s First African American Fire Commissioner
Fireman’s Hall Museum hosted a special program on February 27, 2017, honoring former Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston. Commissioner Hairston who died last fall served as the first African American Fire Commissioner for the PFD from 1992 – 2004.
Above: BC Harold Hairston on left at Ladder 11, c. 1981
He entered the PFD in 1965 and rose rapidly and earned two unit citations along the way for lifesaving rescues. One came in 1980 when he pulled a one year old out of a burning building without backup or breathing equipment. During Commissioner Hairston’s tenure the role of the emergency medical service took on even greater significance and he expanded those roles with new equipment and computerization. He felt the great achievement of his administration was the decrease in fire deaths, which he attributed to stronger codes and community involvement. He began a fire prevention essay contest in 1992 and in 1995 undertook a residential fire inspection throughout the city.
Easily recognized by his Kangols hats, Hairston could often be seen strolling the streets of Old City Philadelphia during lunch breaks, visiting fire houses and attending a myriad of civic meetings.
Hairston took an active interest in Fireman’s Hall Museum, an interest that continued long after his retirement. Stop into Fireman’s Hall Museum to see the tribute organized in his memory.
James Strazzella, or Strazz as he was affectionately known to successive generations of Philadelphia law students, juggled so many different interests and passions that it boggled the minds of his large circle of friends and colleagues. Well known in the legal community for his tireless pro bono work to improve the legal system, Jim found time for numerous civic causes. A long time supporter of Smith Playground he rescued the wood slide and preserved the playground for today’s groups of inquisitive children. He was an ardent supporter of the Wagner Free Institute of Science and was a dedicated member of the board of Fireman’s Hall Museum since 1978. Jim chaired numerous committees at Fireman’s Hall Museum ranging from facilities to governance; and stepped up to be vice president from 2002-2007. Jim was the longest serving member of the board and while he offered to step down on numerous occasions, his offer was quickly spurned by his grateful colleagues. Fireman’s Hall Museum honored Jim in November of 2015 with its Founders’ Award, a well – deserved tribute to a director whose loss will be keenly felt.
Fireman’s Hall Museum is currently revamping our fireboat exhibit and in doing our research, we realized many people don’t know much about fireboats but they’re some of the most unique and interesting fire apparatus that a city can have!
The current front of the museum’s fireboat exhibit. The city skyline backdrop was updated in 2014.
The Independence is the PFD’s newest fireboat and was put into service in 2007 but this new boat’s design does not waver much from the original fireboat, the Edwin S. Stuart, which was put into service in 1893. The boats were originally named after mayors, J. Hampton Moore, Bernard Samuels and Stuart were all Philadelphia mayors. Today, there are 3 Marine Fire Fighting Units in service, the Delaware, Independence and Benjamin Franklin. The boats pump 6,000 gallons of water per minute, which would fill an Olympic swimming pool in over an hour. They weigh around 88 tons – or the equivalent of 11.3 African elephant!
The Independence (Fireboat 1) putting on a water display at the Fireman’s Hall Muster in October 2014.
Come by the museum to find out more about fireboats and stay tuned for updates on our progress!
Fireman’s Hall Museum houses one of the most precious artifacts of the Philadelphia Fire Department. The PFD “Bible” records the careers of every single person employed by the department from 1871 to 1955. The book itself measures 23 inches wide by 18 inches tall and about 2 inches thick.
The Philadelphia Fire Department ‘Bible’
‘The Bible” of the PFD is the original personnel journal from the very first day of the paid fire department in Philly, March 15, 1871, up until 1955. The book is organized alphabetically so the two highlighted names in the photo below are among the first to be registered as part of the paid PFD (click the photo for a better look!)
Page 1 of the ‘Bible’ with 2 of the first members of the paid department. These 2 men joined on March 15, 1871.
In 1955, the recording system changed to index cards and today there is a digital system used to record the careers of every person ever hired by the paid PFD.
A sample page of the bible showing name, age, residence, occupation, position, station, date appointed and any notes about the person’s career.
The “Bible” records include everyone from mechanics to matrons to secretaries. The records indicate every company served by any paid employee including dates of transfers, promotions and retirement.
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The first female firefighter in the 114 years of the paid Philadelphia Fire Department, Paulette Kennedy, joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1985 but the history of women in firefighting begins almost 200 years prior.
In Pittsburgh, for instance, there were female slaves who fought fires with the male volunteer companies in the early 19th century. There were female volunteer companies formed in the early 1900’s in Maryland and California and during World War II, many women took on the jobs previously dominated by men. Firefighting was considered a necessary occupation so firefighters were not drafted but many enlisted. There were enough male replacements in Philadelphia to fill the spaces left by those who enlisted but other cities filled the gaps with women. After WWII, there were several all-female fire companies, including forest fire companies, scattered around the country.
This famous photograph depicts female civilians learning to fight fires during a training exercise at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard during WWII.
22 years after Paulette Kennedy paved the way for women in the Philadelphia Fire Department, Diane Schweizer became the first female chief in the PFD in 2007 when she was appointed chief of Emergency Medical Services Operations. Schweizer was never a firefighter but was an experience paramedic in the department. She was tasked with overseeing the department’s 300+ paramedics and 45 ambulances during a time when fire runs were on the decline and medical runs were climbing. As of 2007, about 2% of Philadelphia’s firefighters were women and 32% of the paramedics were women. Since 1985, the PFD has seen many women perform heroically alongside their male counterparts on the fire ground.
Fireman’s Hall Museum is pleased to congratulate Deputy Commissioner Derrick Sawyer on his impending promotion to Fire Commissioner. He has been with the department since 1985 and worked his way up through every officer rank in that time. Derrick Sawyer is currently Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the Philadelphia Fire Department and succeeds Lloyd Ayers who has served for almost 10 years as Commissioner. Sawyer has held many positions in the department, including head of the Fire Prevention Division, of which Fireman’s Hall Museum is a part.
Retiring Commissioner Lloyd Ayers (left) and soon-to-be Commissioner Derrick Sawyer (right) kick of the 2013 Fireman’s Hall Museum Muster
Derrick Sawyer will be the 18th Fire Commissioner of the paid Philadelphia Fire Department. That number includes the predecessors to the modern Commissioner, the Chief Engineers, who served in the same role as Commissioner between 1871 and 1952.
William H. Johnson served as the first Chief Engineer of the then newly created paid Philadelphia Fire Department from 1871-1879. His first task as Chief Engineer was a particularly unique one as he oversaw the transition from a volunteer system to a city-wide paid department. Many of the new firemen sworn in on March 15, 1871 were former volunteers but not all of their volunteer colleagues supported the development of the paid department. Some ex-volunteers were even suspected of starting fires in the city in protest of the new paid department.
Reany, Neafie & Co Steam Fire Engine (1857) – the oldest steam fire engine in America. This engine served the Philadelphia Hose Co. #1 until 1871 when Philadelphia founded its paid fire department. This engine was then used by the Phila. Fire Insurance Patrol until 1926 when it was retired after almost 70 years in service!
We wish Derrick Sawyer the best of luck in following the paths of William Johnson and the 16 other men who have held the position.
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To keep all of our fans and members up to date on the happenings at Fireman’s Hall Museum – we have decided to start blogging. Check for updates on new exhibit development, special events or new acquisitions. We will also be featuring Items of the Week, photographs and interesting stories to offer a look into our collections not on display. Let us know if there is anything you would like us to feature and we’ll see what we can do!