The following is a summary of the history of DCFD Engine Co. 4 taken from various sources.
On April 25, 1864 an “Act to Organize a Paid Fire Department” was approved and the Washington City Fire Department was organized as a part paid fire department replacing various volunteer companies then in service with hand drawn apparatus. By January, 1865, the new department consisted of three horse drawn engine companies and one horse drawn hook and ladder company. Each engine company had a hose reel carriage and a steam fire engine. The paid
members were: Chief Engineer (in charge of the department), Foremen (in charge of each of the several companies), Engineers (operators of the steam fire engines), Firemen (to drive and maintain the hose carriages), Hostlers (to care for the horses in quarters and at all fires),
Tillerman (to operate the rear steering of the ladder truck) and Extra Men (six to each company to carry out all orders of the Foreman). Each company also had five to six “Supernumeraries” which were non paid members. Members were on duty 24 hours a day everyday with 3 hours off for meals.
The department was then integrated as the first African-American hired (or elected to office) occurred in August 1868 and assigned to the Union Engine Company No. 1. His name was John S. Brent elected Fireman. Two other African-Americans, Augustus Dunbar, Hostler and Daniel Williams, Extra Man were also elected to the Union Engine Company No. 1 in 1868.
On February 21, 1870 the new department expanded for the first time with the addition of "South Washington Fire Company No. 4" located at Virginia Ave. & 4 1/2 Street S.W. The new steam engine was built by Silsby rated at 600 GPM and was named the "Sayles J. Bowen"(named for the Mayor of Washington, DC). The hose reel carriage, it is believed, was an old reserve hose reel built by John Rodgers & Son in 1864. It is also believed it was replaced with a new McDermott Bros. hose reel carriage in 1874.
On September 23, 1871 the department became fully paid and the name changed to the District of Columbia Fire Department. The title of Private replaced the Extra Men and non paid Supernumeraries. The City of Georgetown was succeeded by the new form of government for the District of Columbia. The City of Washington Fire Department and the Georgetown Fire Company No. 1 were merged with the Georgetown Company becoming DCFD Engine Co. 5. Tragedy struck the department and Engine Co. 4 on October 14, 1911, Box Alarm 16 (4th alarm) at the Washington Tobacco Company fire at 618 Pennsylvania Ave. N. W. where two members of Engine 4 died in the line of duty. Captain Timothy J. Brown and Private Michael A. Downs died of injuries sustained when the roof on which they were operating collapsed.
In 1919 the department made Engine Co. 4 the first all African-American DCFD company.
The apparatus at this time was an 1888 Clapp & Jones 750 gpm crane-neck double upright piston
steam fire engine (rebuilt in 1909) pulled by three horses and a 1908 American LaFrance
“Holloway” style 70 gallon double tank combination chemical hose wagon, also pulled by three horses.
The following excerpt is taken from a program on the Silver Anniversary of Engine Co. 4 as an all-Negro unit:
“Immediately after the close of World War I in 1918, Charles E. Gibson, then a private in the District of
Columbia Fire Department, attached to Truck Company 3 as a driver, had enough vision to initiate steps for the organization of an all-colored unit in the District of Columbia Fire Department. Once, in the absence of officers, Private Gibson was denied the opportunity to be left in command of his company. This incident inspired him in his quest for a Negro unit. A request for an audience with Chief Engineer F.J. Wagner and Commissioner W.T. Brownlow was granted. Private Gibson in the company of Privates Frank Hall and Richard J. Holmes, petitioned the organization of an all-Negro unit in the District Fire Department. The petition was favorably received. At this time there were only four Negro members in the Department. Private Gibson began working diligently, seeking the endorsements of the business establishment. All the business establishments endorsed the petition in favor of the Negro unit in the District. In the meantime, Congress passed a bill permitting the two-platoon system in the local Fire Department, thereby increasing the personnel.
On April 13, 1919, the No. 4 Engine Company was organized as an all-Negro unit with three officers and
At the time of its organization in 1919, No. 4 Engine Company was equipped with horse-drawn apparatus. The next year, the personnel was increased to sixteen men. The unit fought many big fires, performing a very efficient service and winning the admiration and respect of the officials and the general public. The local fire fighting archives record no parallel to that of three officers taking eleven men, inexperienced in the knowledge and technique of fire-fighting, and carving such a remarkable record. This achievement deserved and received the highest praise.
The company was motorized in 1921 with a Brockway Hose Wagon and a Christie Front-Drive Steam
The officers and members of “Number 4” have made many thrilling rescues. During the great Knickerbocker disaster on January 28, 1922, in which ninety-seven persons lost their lives, several members of the unit made heroic rescues and rendered invaluable aid to the injured. For these deeds, the several members were decorated for bravery.”
Source: Program on the "Silver Anniversary Banquet 1919 - 1944 No. 4 Engine Company D.C. Fire
Department," Martin Luther King Library, Washington, D.C.
The apparatus description for Engine Co. 4 when motorized in 1921:
The Hose Wagon: 1921 Brockway 50 gallon single tank, 40 horsepower 4 cylinder combination chemical hoses wagon.
The Pumper: 1907 American LaFrance 700 gpm double upright piston (ex-horse drawn) steam fire engine with a 1916
Christie Front Wheel 70 horsepower 4 cylinder tractor attached. The tractor was installed April 19, 1920.
In 1940 a consultant's report recommended consolidating many companies for an economical improvement to the department. Thus the following companies were relocated.
June 4, 1940 Engine 10 moved to the quarters of Truck 13
June 4, 1940 Engine 11 moved to the quarters of Truck 6
June 10, 1940 Engine 26 moved to the quarters of Truck 15
June 30, 1940 Engine 18 moved to the quarters of Truck 7
July 2, 1940 Engine 5 moved to the quarters of Truck 5
Sept. 12, 1940 Engine 7 moved to the quarters of Truck 10
Sept. 12, 1940 Engine 4 moved to the old quarters of Engine 7
The old quarters of Engine 7 was at 931 R Street N.W.
The reason Engine 4 moved to the quarters of Engine 7 was that Engine 4 was the company nearest to Truck 10. However Truck Co. 10 was then an all-White company. To preserve the
segregation of companies, Engine 7 was selected to go to Truck 10 and Engine 4 replaced Engine 7. Ironically, both Engine 7 and Truck 10 would in later years become all African- American companies.
July 4, 1944, Box Alarm 822 Private Joseph A. Carter died of back injuries sustained on the fire
ground at 2214 Georgia Ave. N.W. on October 19, 1943.
On May 4, 1945 Truck Company 16 was organized and placed in service at the quarters of Engine Company 19. The personnel from Engine Co. 27 were transferred to Truck Co. 16, and
extra African American personnel were transferred from Engine Company 4 to the new Engine Co. 27 to form a second all African-American company. The reason Engine 4 had extra men is that when a vacancy in the department was filled, if the next qualified applicant was African-American, he was hired and assigned to Engine 4 and the next white applicant was hired to fill the vacancy in the white company. In all, before the department integrated in 1962 there were five DCFD all African-American companies in service.
They were Engines 4, 7, 13, 27 and Truck Co. 10.
In September 1960 Ambulance 7 was placed in service at Engine Co. 4. Between 1971 and 1974 Ambulance 7 transferred to Engine Co. 16.
In July 1976, Mobile 25 (first medic unit) was placed in service at the Washington Hospital Center. Ambulance 1 was placed out of service to allow staffing for new medic unit. (Later renamed Medic 1)
On October 3, 1976 Rescue Squad 2 moved into the new quarters of Engine Co. 4 at 2531 Sherman Ave. N.W. from Engine Co. 24. On October 22, 1976 Engine Co. 4 and Mobil 25 moved to the new quarters. Mobil 25 continued to run out of the Washington Hospital Center during the day and from Engine 4 during the night (while still in continued paramedic training).
On October 1, 1984 Medic 1 relocated to Engine Co. 11. Ambulance 19 placed in service at Engine Co. 4.
On May 7, 1995 Rescue Squad 2 moved to new quarters with Engine Co. 24
In 2000 all EMS unit numbers were reassigned to match the engine company in which they were quartered. Thus Ambulance 19 became Ambulance 4. Currently, the Safety Office, Mask Room and Air 1 are also located in the quarters of Engine Co. 4.
Information regarding John S. Brent is taken from research conducted by Barbara Bates member of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants Washington, D.C. Her sources in part are from the Martin Luther King Library Washington, D.C. and the Washington Post Newspaper archives (1877 – 1991) and an article "Union Vet Scored a 'first' with D.C. Fire Department" dated May 21, 1960, in the Washington Afro-American by Edward Peeks. Information compiled by Lt. James Embrey DCFD Retired.