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History of the International Association of Firefighters
Posted On: Jan 27, 2008

History of the International Association of Fire Fighters


Paid fire fighters began organizing themselves into clubs and associations in the mid-19th century. Many of these groups were organized for the assistance of fire fighters who were injured on the job or for the families of fire fighters who died in the line of duty.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, professional fire fighters were beginning to organize themselves into local unions. The first of these unions to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor was the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union which still holds the designation of IAFF LOCAL 1.

By the end of 1916, there were 17 AFL-chartered local fire fighters unions in the United States and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The World War I surge in unionism was eagerly joined by professional fire fighters. More than 40 local unions were chartered by the AFL in 1917, and interest grew in establishing an international union. The following year 24 local unions attended a charter conventions held in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Conventions deliberations resulted in the founding of the International Association of Fire Fighters on Feb. 28, 1918, and its chartering by the AFL. The original IAFF constitution established the union along organizational lines that are continued to the present day, advised against strikes, and laid out a set of objectives essentially similar to those cited in the preamble to the present IAFF Constitution.

The convention also founded the IAFF publication, The Fire Fighter, and established and enduring precedent of active participation in legislative affairs.

Delegates to the 1918 Convention took time off from their deliberations to visit their congressmen to urge them to enact a “two-platoon system” for the fire fighters of Washington, DC They also formed a legislative committee on the IAFF Executive Board.

Advocacy of the two-platoon system was a primary issue for fire fighters of the day. In 1918, only 34 American cities maintained two shifts of fire fighters, with one on duty while the other was off. The common practice was “continuous duty”, requiring fire fighters to live constantly in the fire house, except for meals and an occasional day off.

At the time the IAFF was founded with 5,400 members, the average salary of a top-grade fire fighter was $1,346 a year. In addition, few fire fighters were protected by civil service laws and almost all pay, promotions, and other benefits came and went at the whim of local politicians.

Other enduring goals of the IAFF also appeared early in its history. The 1919 convention endorsed the eight-hour work day, called for universal health insurance, and urged “its speedy enactment with provision for adequate medical and financial benefits, free choice of physician, active preventive work, and democratic management.”

That same year, Boston police went out on strike and public outrage over the strike in the Untied States had a disastrous effect on most public employee unions, including the IAFF. In the wake of the strike, many public employees were forbidden to belong to unions and many city governments required IAFF locals to give up their charters in return for pay raises. At the same time in Canada, public sentiment was in sharp contrasts to that displayed in the Untied States with the Canadian public generally supportive of the plight of fire fighters and their right to unionize.

The IAFF, which had reported almost 25,000 members in a August 1919, saw a loss of 5,000 members over the next year. In 1923, the IAFF worked aggressively to encourage the enactment of civil service laws to remove the fire service from politics. Although membership was down to about 17,000, the IAFF’s civil service reform demands were beginning to show results. The first major victories were in Canada, where provincial laws governing fire services were enacted to protect fire fighters from politics.

By 1926, membership was beginning to edge upward again and the public support for fire fighter issues was increasing. At the IAFF’s convention that year, members of the Portland, Oregon local proudly reported winning a salary increase after an unprecedented campaign for public support in which they distributed 100,000 pamphlets, 80,000 letters and 70,000 flyers, advertised in movie theaters, and fulfilled more than 40 speaking engagements.

That same year, the convention turned its attention to professional education for the first time, hearing a speaker from the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry discuss the hazards of dust explosions and how to fight them. Although the effects of the Boston police strike lingered and the IAFF in 1930 adopted a “no strike” provision in its Constitution- the membership and influence of the IAFF continued to grow “Continuous service” was largely a thing of the past.

With the IAFF president and vice presidents serving as organizers, local unions were chartered by the dozens. The effect of the Great Depression, with its manpower cutbacks and pay-less paydays, further fostered fire fighter unionism.

The IAFF and its affiliates continued fighting for descent wages and working conditions, although prospects for more pay and shorter hours were hampered by the Great Depression if the 1930s. During the Depression years, when millions of citizens were unemployed, IAFF members in many cities assisted private relief agencies by organizing “Sunshine Divisions” for the distribution of clothes and commodities to those in need. The charitable activities of IAFF members during this period set a precedent that lives on - and to this day, IAFF members still donate their services to assist the public in charitable and community endeavors.

By 1939, the IAFF could celebrate the spread of civil service laws, significant shortening of hours of work, and growing salaries for fire fighters. That year also marked the IAFF’s first efforts involving occupational safety and health when the IAFF engaged its first “medical advisor” to carry on research into the physical effects of fire fighting with special attention to heart disease. IAFF membership, which reached 23,000 in 1932, increased to about 45,000 in 1940 as the IAFF got involved in the new civil defense activities being inaugurated in the Untied States and Canada.

The 1940s saw major advances in membership and effectiveness, even as the union coped with wartime and postwar problems. The year 1944 saw the first eight federal locals chartered and the growth of state associations to 33, most of which maintained legislative representatives to promote issues affecting fire fighters in the state legislatures. Although a World War II wage freeze largely stymied efforts to counter wartime inflation, the 48-hour week became widespread in the fire service and, in 1948, the IAFF chartered its 1000th local union.

With the largest cities paying an average of $3,500-a-year to fire fighters, the 1950 IAFF convention set as the union’s objectives a base salary of $5,000,a 40-hour workweek, retirement at half-pay after 20 years of service, $1,200 minimum annual benefits for widows, and three-quarters pay for fire fighters disabled in the line of duty.

The IAFF entered the 1950s with a membership of more than 72,000 and a rising awareness among fire fighters that pay increases were not matching the ravages of inflation. In 1955, when the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations untied to form the AFL-CIO, the IAFF remained an active affiliate of the newly constituted and larger House of Labor in the Untied States and its counterpart in Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress.

The IAFF turned its attention to strengthening the bargaining process by advocating the passage of compulsory arbitration laws. In the 1950s, the IAFF also began a decades-long and largely successful effort to keep fire fighters’ pensions from being absorbed into the social security system. Meanwhile, the IAFF’s membership continued to climb, boosted by an upsurge of interest in unionism among federally-employed fire fighters in the Untied States and Canada.

The 1956 convention noted with satisfaction that 85 per cent of all eligible professional fire fighters belonged to the IAFF. A growing concern of fire fighters in that period was occupational health and safety and the IAFF began a concerted effort to seek legislation recognizing and providing protection against occupational hazards. In 1958, the John P. Redmond Memorial Fund for Research of Occupational Diseases of Fire Fighters, named for a former IAFF president who died during attendance at an AFL-CIO convention, was founded.

Its first activities included establishment of a medical library to assist locals in the presentation of disability and pension cases. The late 1950s saw many U. S. Locals winning referendum campaigns for higher wages and better working conditions. Canadian locals by now generally worked under written contracts required by provincial law. The IAFF established a research department to compile statistics on fire fighter working conditions and other data for use in local bargaining. Meanwhile another threat appeared.

The IAFF had to turn its attention to municipal attempts to merge fire and police departments, with generally disruptive effects on fire services. It was an issue that would remain a top priority for decades.

The 1960s saw a major expansion of IAFF membership services. In 1960, the International began producing and distributing printed materials for its affiliates in support of bargaining, negotiating, public relations, and local union administration.

Two years later, the IAFF established a public relations program, followed in 1963 by a program of educational seminars. That same year, the union began mailing issues of the Fire Fighter directly to all IAFF members. The magazine had previously been distributed by local unions. Also in 1963, Canadian IAFF members gained important rights when all Canadian provinces began requiring binding arbitration of bargaining disputes.

More and more states began passing binding arbitration laws by the mid-1960s under prodding from IAFF affiliates, and to this day the IAFF is still working for enactment of a federal law to guarantee collective bargaining rights for all state and municipal fire fighters.

The 50th Anniversary of the IAFF in 1968 came at a time of considerable turmoil in fire service affairs. The convention that year removed the “no strike” clause from the IAFF Constitution. Convention delegates were reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with employers’ responses to demands for better pay and working conditions, fire fighter casualties resulting from civil disorder in large cities, and governmental foot-dragging on occupational health hazard problems.

To intensify its efforts on these and other issues, the IAFF that year also established an international legislative representative position, a vice-president representing fire fighters in the federal sector, and a full-time Canadian representative. A committee, established to deal with issues of harassment of fire fighters during the performance of their duties, began a campaign for protective equipment and other measures, but also firmly closed the door on any proposals that fire fighters carry firearms.

The year also saw a major legislative victory for the IAFF. President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the federal Fire Research Act, which for the first time focused national attention on fire safety problems and led to the establishment of the National Fire Academy. The IAFF had been a major proponent of the law and its provisions.

In the following years, the IAFF steadily increased its membership services and influence. By the late 1980s, the modern IAFF could point to impressive and growing list of accomplishments on behalf of the professional fire fighters of the Untied States and Canada.

Among the more recent accomplishments are fostering enactment of a national death benefit for fire fighters killed in the line of duty, an increasing number of state “right to know” laws in the health and safety area, the establishment of sophisticated, computerized research and analysis programs to assist affiliates in bargaining and other union activities, protection of pension systems from assault by a host of attackers, significant public acceptance of professionalism of the fire service, and a growing awareness of the authority with which professional fire fighters address community fire safety needs.

With the 1990s, and the era of tighter municipal budgets, several new challenges have faced the IAFF and its membership. State and local governments have attempted to raid the hard-earned pension funds of fire fighters and other public employees in effort to balance annual budgets. The IAFF and its affiliates have fought back to protect public employee pensions.

Increasingly, unit and departmental staffing have come under attack over the past decade, with many communities fielding engine and ladder companies at levels below minimum safe staffing requirements. Also in the 1990s, the provision of fire department-based emergency medical services has emerged as one of the keys to the future of the fire service. With improvements in emergency medicine and technology have come an increased demand for EMS. Beginning in the 1980s, more and more locals began turn to cross-training of fire fighters, paramedics and/or emergency medical technicians to take advantage of the growing opportunities presented by EMS.

But the potential profits from providing EMS has drawn the attention of many large corporations which are fighting to privatize many municipal services. The IAFF has been involved in a city-by-city battle over EMS. At the same time, even as safety improvements spearheaded by the IAFF made many aspects of the fire fighters’ job less dangerous, a variety of new occupational hazards appeared including that of chemicals, hazardous materials, and infectious diseases.

The IAFF moved to the forefront of these areas, developing an extensive Hazardous Materials training program for fire and emergency personnel and winning a lengthy legislative battle in Washington to enact an infectious disease notification law for fire fighters.

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