The first American (volunteer) fire department company is often credited to Ben Franklin, around 1736, in Philadelphia. This started as a "club" or co-op, to protect each other's homes in the event of a fire. But there were organizations resembling firefighting "clubs", also known as "Mutual Fire Societies" in Boston prior to this. Boston also had "Firewards" as early as 1711. As early as 1678, Boston had some fire fighting equipment and a paid crew to maintain it and respond to fires. In 1648, New York, and a few other cities, had a volunteer "rattle watch" who patrolled the streets. If a fire was discovered these people would sound an alarm and help organize bucket brigades. As early as 1731 there is a record of the City of New York purchasing fire apparatus. This was a hand pump/brake bar engine.
Franklin noted in his own newspaper, in 1735, that Boston had "a club or society of active men belonging to each fire engine, whose business is to attend all fires with it whenever they happen." This may have been one of the concepts that help him go down in history as one of our first, if not THE first, fire chief. The difference between Ben Franklin's "fire brigade" and the other co-ops, of clubs, is that he saw the advantage of protecting all the property of the community and not just those who had joined together to help fight each other's fires. Franklin formed a fire brigade that became know as The Union Fire company. This was made up of about 30 volunteers from the community. These men met monthly to discuss fire fighting techniques. But this was not the only "fire company" in Philadelphia. Soon afterwards there were others known as, the Britannia, the Heart-in-Hand, the Fellowship and others.
Many prominent early Americans were volunteer firefighters. After all, in most cases, if people didn't organize and form some kind of co-op, there wasn't anyone to help keep the town from burning down. George Washington was a volunteer in Alexandria, Va. and purchased a new fire engine to donate to the town.
While it was more true back then, volunteer fire houses are still a major organization in many communities. Volunteer departments hold BBQ's and other events to raise money. Usually the prominent leaders of a community are members of the fire department. It is less true today, but 150 years ago, the volunteer fire departments were often powerful political machines in many towns and cities