The Americans established the Manila Fire Department. But before they came, Manila had no professional firemen. Fire fighting was supposed to be a community duty, or bayanihan.
During the Spanish times, a fire that broke out anywhere in Manila was announced throughout the city by a special tolling of church bells. A fire in Quiapo is announced through seven strokes. Ten strokes meant that the fire was in Tondo; five strokes in Binondo and so forth.
The city had no regular fire men then. It was the men folk who were expected to hurry to the scene and help put out the fire. The first firemen were usually the street sweepers. It was their job to drag the city’s antiquated and only fire wagon to the scene of the fire and to draft enough volunteers to help in handling the hose, pumping the water, and rescuing the trapped victims.
A peculiar tradition required the presence at fire events the Spanish governor-general or the archbishop of Manila. Nick Joaquin noted that fire chasers of those days followed, not screaming fire engines, but the fast coaches of the señor capitan-general and the señor arzobispo racing each other to the conflagration. Perhaps authority from the two colonial masters are needed when calling the army to blast down stone walls with their cannons for fires engulfing big strong buildings,
With all those present, the government, the church, and the army, big fires in the olden days must have been colorful and even festive for the side walk audience.
In the 1890’s, Captain Luis Yangco (famous for the Yangco Shipping) imported the first motor fire engine in the Philippines. Manned by Yangco’s own dock laborers, the fire engine raced the streets whenever a fire broke out in the city. It was equipped with a large hose that it did not fit the city’s hydrants and had to draw its water from river or canal.
At about the same time, Manila’s European merchants, mostly the British, organized themselves into a fire brigade, with headquarter on the present Juan Luna Street (formerly Anloague) the brigade has acquired a steam engine of its own and members were bound to assist in fighting any fire within the city’s business area then of Binondo and Sta. Cruz. Members of the fire brigade donned splendid uniforms of white helmets and bright red coats when fire fighting.
When the Americans occupied Manila, they established a fire brigade which later became a regular fire force in 1902. Headed by Fire Chief Hugh Bonner, the fire brigade composed mostly of American ex-soldiers and the rules and regulations laid down by the fire chief. They were Manila’s first real firemen. They introduced the sliding pole and the raincoat uniform which are still kept by the Manila Fire Department.
The department started using horse-drawn fire wagons. The big trained horses were of terrific speed and were passionately cared by their American masters. In fact, the horses became legendary that Manileños of the 1900s would troop to the fire stations in San Nicholas and Santa Cruz in the morning to watch, in awed silence while the Yankees took their blankets-wrapped horses for a walk around the block.
Nick Joaquin described that those horses seemed almost human. Their equipment hung ever ready from the ceiling of the station. At the sound of an alarm, the horses instantly leapt to their positions beneath the equipment, the equipment automatically dropped and the horses had practically harnessed themselves even before the last fireman had slid down the pole. It was a swift precise routine that delight Manileños until, in1916, the tractor-type vehicles replaced the old fire wagons and the wonderful “fire horses” of Manila disappeared forever from its streets.
The American masters were beginning to be replaced too at about the same time though there was too much opposition tot eh change from people who feared that the fire department, if run by Filipinos, might not be as efficient and dependable. Governor-General Harrison pooh-poohed such fear and continued promoting Filipino firemen in rank.
After World War II, Manila has lost all but of its three stations. According to Nick Joaquin, these stations had a heroic role in the city’s history. Oldest of them is the Santa Cruz Fire Station on Calle Ongpin which to day is no longer their.
But the fire station in San Nicholas became famous in the olden days because it had one of the first and finest gymnasiums in town. Sportsmen even labeled the San Nicholas Fire Station as the “Cradel of Boxing” in Manila.
It was at this fire station that American firemen would gather the neighboring kids in their gym, provide them with boxing gloves, and make them slug it out for a purse collected from all the station’s firemen. Joaquin noted that these prizefights developed a taste for the ring among Filipinos that would have its glory days in the 1920s -but that’s another story.
Information source: Manila, My Manila by Nick Joaquin