Lack of municipal funds during the 1870's left streets unpaved and kept the city from installing a water supp1y system. These deficiencies coupled with insufficient equipment, retarded the firefighting abilities of the volunteers. Frequently, a pumper or hose carriage became bogged down in the mud while rushing to a conflagration. When the equipment finally arrived, water had to be hauled by bucket or hose from the river, creeks, acequias, etc. to distant hand or steam pumpers. Fire hydrants would have eased the volunteers' water gathering ability, but they only existed in cities where water supply systems had been constructed. While the need to modernize was obvious, city officials were bent on keeping expenses to a minimum for as long as possible. Because municipal funds were limited, the Council sought to enact firefighting and fire prevention measures which could be achieved without additional money. Fire prevention during this time played an important role at City Hall. The Council produced numerous ordinances pertaining to building methods, fire starting, and the storage of combustible materials. In 1874, a system of geographical fire limits was established. Within these limits, strict fire codes were enforced. These boundaries separated the greater municipal area from outlying zones. In 1873, the Council provided funds, for the first time, to purchase and keep horses and paid drivers so that some previously hand-hauled equipment could be driven to he scene of a blaze. These drivers, who were not firefighters, slept at the firehouses and cared for the teams. 1n 1875, Mayor French's request to purchase a steam pumper for the Milam company was granted. With the exception of the horse, drivers, and steam pumper, City Council provided no major funding for the fire companies during the 1870's. As the city's population exploded at the end of the decade, concerned citizens saw the need for additional firefighting assistance. Consequently, three new volunteer fire companies were established to serve in the newer residential areas of the city. The following brigades received their charter in the eighties: The Second Ward Hose Co. on April 14, 1883; the Sunset Hose Co. No.1 early in 1885; and the Mission Hose Co. No.4, on October 16, 1885.
In the spring of 1878, the City Council, in order to establish some cohesiveness between the separate Fire companies, organized the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department. In an ordinance dated May 21, 1878, the Council proposed that there be one chief, elected by the aldermen, to take charge. Each of the five companies were to present a nominee, one of whom would be elected by the 50 council. The resulting election on July 2, 1878 produced a tie between J. H. Kampmann, the white nominee of "Colored" Co. No. 3; and G. A. Duerler, a local confectioner, who was nominated by the Turner Hook and Ladder Company. Forced to cast the deciding vote, Mayor James French selected Duerler. It is possible that French's swing vote in favor of Duerler was influenced by an anti-black attitude. On the other hand, Duerler may well have been chosen because French felt he was the best man for the job. This is substantiated by the fact that Duerler was frequently re-elected during the remaining years of the century.
Between October 1871 and November 1872, the three worst fires in United States history were recorded. The Great Chicago Fire in 1671, The Wisconsin Forest fire in that same year, and the Great Fire of Boston claimed more than 1500 lives, destroyed a million and a half acres, and 52 caused nearly 41.5 billion (in today's dollars) damage. In the early 1860's, following several fatal Fires in the United States, City Council spent a great deal of time upgrading fire prevention measures. No concentration of municipal proclamations or ordinances concerning fire prevention are found around the dates of the great conflagrations of the 1870's. Since government leaders realized that the tight city budget would not allow for updating city services, they simply ignored the national tragedies.
It was not until the mid-eighties, under the leadership of Mayor Bryan Callaghan, that the fire department and other city services were markedly enhanced. He brought to his office a progressive approach to city government. In order to satisfy the ongoing mood of fiscal conservatism and the lingering desire to keep taxes low, Callaghan provided funds for improvements by borrowing from local banks and through issuing municipal bonds. His administration is credited, among other things, for paving the streets and installing fire hydrants.
Callaghan's time in office paralleled mushrooming technological advances throughout America. These advances affected the development of fire departments, the equipment they used, and fire alarm systems. It was during the eighties that the first discussions pertaining to a switch from a volunteer fire department to a paid organization were held in San Antonio. By this time, most major urban areas throughout the country had converted to such organizations. In addition, other cities had purchased modern equipment and had replaced old Fire bells with electrical alarm systems. San Antonio was growing too fast to ignore modernization. Also, fire insurance companies imposed strict penalties for not keeping up with the times, and neglect of firefighting services threatened the community.
The volunteers reacted adversely to the notion that their beloved fraternities be dissolved. A local San Antonio newspaper, "The Times", advocated a paid fire department in 1886. Reaction by the volunteers to this campaign was heated. Chief Duerler attacked the newspaper for printing inaccurate statements and accused it of defamation of character and ingratitude toward the volunteer firemen. Problems with the egos of volunteers were not new. In Cincinnati, during the early 1850's, fire insurance companies requested that the volunteers in that city switch from hand pumps to more efficient steamers. The fire companies felt that their influence would be greatly curtailed because the running of a steam pump required fewer men than did a hand pump. The request of the insurance companies hurt the feelings of the volunteers to the extent that the insurers feared the resignation of all firemen. Consequently, they dropped the issue.
In his annual report to City Council on March 28, 1887, Chief Duerler expressed pride in the services rendered by the city's volunteer firemen. He hoped the Council would be forthcoming in necessary funds for the future and cited statistics claiming that the San Antonio Fire Department spent less than the departments in Dallas, Galveston, and Houston. "Since the city is growing its needs are growing", said Duerler. He suggested several improvements: each hose company should hire an additional paid man and obtain another horse, old hose carts which were in disrepair should be replaced by four wheeled hose carriages that would be able to carry four firemen along with equipment, the old Milam engine should be replaced, and a larger hook and ladder truck should replace the present one because it could not serve buildings over two stories in height. These objectives were approved by City Council and were financed by a $10,000.00 allotment from a $150,000.00 bond issue passed by the electorate on April 30, 1887.
Duerler's report continued by stating that the 27 fires reported in 1886 caused $55,650.00 in damage and that insurance payments totaled $36,850.00, leaving $22,800.00 in locals above insurance claims. A total of 157 volunteer firemen represented the following six existing fire companies Fire Co. No. 1, Fire Co. No. 2, Turner Hook and Ladder Company, 2nd Ward Home Co., Sunset Hose Co., and Mission Hose Co.
Fire prevention and fire department efficiency was enhanced in the decade of the eighties as the City Council updated regulations. After the Brooklyn Theater Fire in 1876, which took more than 300 lives, conflagrations at public functions were recognized as a real safety threat. In 1888, city marshals found the fire escapes at the Opera House to be inadequate and proposed that they be widened and lengthened. In addition, the management was given 90 days to put up iron curtains and a fire hydrant on stage. During performances, two firemen were required to be stationed near the hydrant with a hose and nozzle hook-up at hand in case of emergency.
On July 27, 1885, the City Council adopted a fire directory dividing the city into fire districts, and established a code of signals to pinpoint exact locations of fires. The alarm signals determined which fire companies would respond. Only those in the immediate vicinity of a blaze reacted. The codes eliminated the previous turn-out of the entire force at each fire.