By Chief Fire Marshal Louis Garcia (Retired) & Assistant Fire Commissioner John Mulligan (Retired)
Even a brief history of the Bureau of Fire Investigation cannot be told without going back to the basics, or how it all began. New York’s Fire Marshal force dates back to 1854, making it one of the oldest existing investigative agencies in the world.
Dating even before such important New York City criminal law and order investigatory agencies as the NYPD Detective Bureau, U.S. Secret Service or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FDNY Fire Marshals had gained a professional reputation for objective investigation through casework and relentless pursuit of arsonists. The title Fire Marshal was a New York creation, setting forever it’s image and mission. No Fire Department can match the New York City Fire Department’s institutional experience and know-how, earned over almost a century and a half of response to hundreds of thousands of fires. As their motto states, FDNY Fire Marshals do determine “Truth from the Ashes”. The storied century and one-half history of the Bureau of Fire Investigation is very much entwined with the history of our nation’s largest and greatest city.
BFI’s point of origin dates back to the spring of 1854 when Alfred E. Baker, a beat reporter for a newspaper, The New York Herald, began investigating and reporting on fires in New York City. According to renowned 19th century fire historian Augustine E. Costello, reporter Baker “was struck by the number of peculiar fires of doubtful origin” he had been covering. In addition to reporting such in his newspaper—edited by none other than the esteemed Gordon Bennett, Sr.— Mr. Baker brought his suspicions to Chief Engineer Alfred Carson, leader of the then all volunteer New York Fire Department at its headquarters in Fireman’s Hall at 155 Mercer Street.
Chief Engineer Carson quickly grasped the implication of reporter Baker’s suggestion that somebody should be investigating fires. Chief Carson arranged for the Police Justices to hire Baker as their “clerk/investigator”, with local insurance companies to temporarily pay his salary. Baker was so successful as a Fire Investigator, that within a year, Chief Carson authorized him to wear a “fireman’s uniform” consisting of a red shirt, fire coat, and fire cap (helmet) with the front plate reading “Fire Marshal”, while also sporting a Police Sergeant’s shield altered to read Fire Marshal.
Baker was subsequently placed on the New York City payroll and was given an assistant. The 19th Century version of the Bureau of Fire Investigation was thereupon launched. At the outset, Baker set the tone for aggressive Fire Investigation and in 14 years at the helm investigated some very notable cases.
In 1865 the New York City volunteer fire department was legislated out of existence, replaced by the State mandated, paid, Metropolitan Fire District which covered New York and the separate City of Brooklyn. Mr. Baker served as the Metropolitan Fire Marshal, covering both cities. By the time Bakers tenure ended in 1868, he had served in three different titles--Fire Marshal, Metropolitan Fire Marshal, and City Fire Marshal-- in three different departments, doing critical and innovative fire investigatory work, setting a standard that still holds to this day.
In 1870 the Metropolitan Fire Department gave way to the New York City Fire Department, now known as the more familiar FDNY. By the reform act of 1871, effective in mid-1873, the Fire Department took complete control of the Fire Marshal’s office from the Police Department, with the creation of the Bureau of Fire Marshal.
On May 20, 1970, New York City Fire Marshals officially became Police Officers by mandate of the Criminal Procedure Law of the State of New York. Today's Fire Marshal has broadened police powers that include the ability to issue subpoenas, as well as authority to administer legal oaths and affirmations.
In the 20th Century, the Bureau of Fire Marshals was renamed the FDNY Bureau of Fire Investigations, It is also known by the now familiar acronym BFI. Today, the FDNY BFI conducts over 6,000 investigations per year, utilizing the expertise and experience of the best fire investigators in the world, the New York City Fire Marshal! With the beginning of its third century of professional investigatory work carried out for a city having some 8 million New York residents and 47 million annual visitors, FDNY Fire Marshals have renewed dedication to fulfilling their principal service mission, best summarized by their official motto:
Veritas ex Cineribus
TRUTH FROM THE ASHES.