How FDNY got their Bravest nickname

New York’s Fire Department can trace their Bravest
nickname back to French military commander Michel Ney, the ‘bravest of the brave’

New York City’s smoke-eaters have earned their nickname a thousand times over since it was first applied to them in the late 1800s — but its origins may have more to do with the military than firefighting.

According to historians, the “bravest of the brave” was a Frenchman named Michel Ney, a fearsome and formidable foe on the battlefield who waged war alongside Napoleon from 1803 to 1815, during the Napoleonic Wars.


Ney was known to his troops as “Le Rougeaud,” or the red-faced one. But after one particularly daunting stretch of warfare, the Emperor dubbed him “le brave des braves.”

It might never have been attached to the FDNY if it weren’t for their brothers in blue, the NYPD.

As early as 1874, the city’s police force was being referred to as the “Finest,” according to historian and author Barry Popik.

The nickname is most commonly traced to Police Chief George Matsell, who once declared that he would make “the finest police force in the world.”

By the early 1880s, a play about cops titled “One of the Finest” cemented the name, Popik said. Not to be outdone, firefighters soon began referring to some of their most heralded members as the “Bravest.”

In 1862 a newspaper article saluted Capt. John Downey as “the bravest of the brave.”

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In 1886, a play appeared about city firemen called “One of the Bravest” — which pretty much sealed it in the eyes of the public and among the rank-and-file.

Before long, city dwellers were lining up to buy tickets to what became annual baseball games between the “Finest” and the “Bravest,” Popik said.

Smoky Joe Martin FDNY

When Joseph B. Martin joined the FDNY in 1884, he was one of the only firemen on the job with a college education. He rose quickly through the ranks. While in command of Engine 31 he would earn his now world famous nickname.
On a cold winter night in 1899 Martin led an attack on a dangerous cellar fire in a large warehouse. Despite the fact the nozzle teams had to keep changing men, Martin stayed at the lead. Man after man took his turn at the knob only to be driven from his position by the heavy smoke and high heat conditions. Soon his entire company was laid out in the street unconscious or gasping for air. After watching yet another company stumble out into the street, Chief Croker ordered everyone out.
Martin remained.
The chief crawled in himself. After three attempts to reach the nozzle the veteran chief finally found Martin, nozzle in hand wedged between packing crates battling the flames. Crocker grabbed him by the collar and pulled him out.
In the street, Croker announced, half-angry and half-proud “Gentlemen, this is Smoky Joe Martin. By the gods he certainly does love it!”
The nickname stuck.
The salty fire officer would continue up the ranks until he became Assistant Chief. Martin commanded some of the most dangerous and difficult fires any fire officer has ever faced. He continued leading his beloved men until he was forced to retire in November 1930. He died at home 11 years later.
In 1944, the now famous character “Smokey Bear” was named after him.
The photos show Martin with his driver “Daredevil Dan” Healy. Martin far left with smoke helmeted Rescue 1 men and the mayor at Medal Day 1916. And Martin’s ornate signature on a report from the Board of Merit. Paul Hashagen

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FDNY Lt. John Mulzac

Retired FDNY Lt. John Mulzac, a Tuskegee Airman who took to the skies in three wars, died this week.
He was 91.

Mulzac, a Brooklyn resident who was affectionately called Daddy John, was an original member of the elite Tuskegee Airmen, a group of 994 pilots who in World War II became the first African-American aviators in the history of the U.S. armed forces.

To his family, Mulzac, who died Sunday, was also a prankster and storyteller whose barrier-breaking history spoke for itself. But it was a tale the Bedford-Stuyvesant man enjoyed sharing nonetheless.

“They said that we could never fly airplanes, were not capable of flying airplanes,” Mulzac recounted to an auditorium of students at St. Saviour High School in Brooklyn in 2001. “But there were some people on our side.” The heroism shown by the Tuskegee Airmen is said to have influenced President Harry S. Truman’s decision to desegregate the military in 1948. The airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, the highest honor bestowed by Congress.

“Despite the tough times of segregation he went through, he always felt this was the best country in the world,” said son Henry Mulzac, 60, a retired NYPD detective. “He was so grateful for what this country did for him and felt the service was worth it.”The pioneering pilot moved from manning flight controls to manning fire hoses when he became a smoke eater for the FDNY in 1947. He also started a family with his wife Beatrice, who pinned on his pilot wings at his graduation from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1944. When the country called on Mulzac again, he left the firehouse to fly missions in the Korean and Vietnam wars as a reservist.

He retired from the Fire Department in 1967 as a lieutenant, then worked as a sky marshal and as a U.S. Customs inspector before retiring for good to concentrate on his role as the patriarch of a sprawling brood of eight children, 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, his family said.

Mulzac, who died Sunday, is survived by his wife, eight children, 22 grandchildren and eight greatgrandchildren.

“He was a man of integrity and he loved his children, and in his life he wanted to see them all get an education and strive for the best,” wife Beatrice Mulzac, 88, said Thursday at his wake.

That drive was an inspiration for the success of his family. His son Robert Mulzac followed in his father’s footsteps and is a retired FDNY lieutenant. Two of his grandkids, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris, play NBA ball for the Orlando Magic.

“What an inspiration. I knew I could do and be whatever because of him,” his daughter, Karen Mulzac-Frye said after Mulzac’s wake.“Now that he’s gone, I’ve got to work even harder.”



John F. Mooney FDNY

From the Vault:
One Hundred Years Ago-
Another fireman chosen to be in the new Rescue Company was: John F. Mooney from Ladder Co. 4.
In 1912 Mooney made a daring rescue at 252 West 47th Street and was awarded the Wertheim and Department Medals.
On March 24, 1913 Ladder 4 arrived at the fire building, 320 West 58th Street, where a woman was clinging to a fourth floor window sill in the rear of the blazing building. The inner stairs were a sheet of flames so Mooney and Lt. Simpson hurried up the ladder to the roof.
Mooney laid flat on the roof and inched forward extending his head, then shoulders, then his upper body to the waist over the roof’s edge as the officer held his legs. Mooney leaned and stretched as far down as he could and grasped the woman by her hands. Using tremendous strength Mooney pulled her upwards. She and Mooney were now both dangling 60-feet above the ground. With an obstacle near the cornice Mooney extended himself even further to get into position to muscle her up and over the piece of iron work.
With one last effort the woman was raised up and over the ironwork and onto the roof.
This was the fourth time Mooney had been placed on the Roll of Merit.
The following year found Mooney on the steps of City Hall again. This time Mayor Mitchel was pinning the James Gordon Bennett and Department Medals on Mooney’s chest, for the best rescue of the year.
As the mayor pinned the two new medals on him he remarked, “You haven’t room for many more!”
He was an obvious choice for Rescue Company 1.

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Chief John J. Pritchard FDNY

Chief John J. Pritchard

“If you’re ever trapped in a fire, he’s the one you want coming for you.”
Standing all of five foot five and weighing in at a little over a hundred and fifty pounds, John J. Pritchard joined the Department in 1970 and quickly joined up with Rescue 2, an elite unit of the FDNY that specialized in showing up first to the scene, pulling people out of burning buildings while the structure collapsed around them, and then getting the hell out of there before they were crushed to death by flaming cinderblocks or asphyxiated from an insane amount of smoke inhalation.

Pritchard’s first documented experience putting himself at “extreme personal risk” for the sake of being totally fucking awesome came in 1975, when Rescue 2 responded to a three-story building that, by the time they got there, had already been lit up like a Kuwaiti oil field fire. With the first two floors completely engulfed in raging, rapidly-growing flames and a developmentally-disabled boy allegedly trapped up on the top floor, Pritchard didn’t even wait for orders before he sprung into action like a boss. He grabbed a ladder, threw it up against the side of the building, and sprinted to the top, smashing out a window and entering the building. The window was just a little too small to accommodate the oxygen tank he had strapped to his back, so naturally Pritchard did the completely batshit insane thing, took off his O2 tank, and climbed into the smoke-filled burning building without any supplemental oxygen.

Crawling around on the floor in an effort to avoid being immediately killed by the massive obscene amounts of black smoke that blackened the entire interior of the building, Pritchard made his way through the boy’s apartment, desperately trying to find him before it was too late. When he couldn’t find the boy in the apartment, he went out the front door into the hall, where he found the kid laying at the top of the apartment building stairwell, his clothes on fire. Pritchard smothered the flames, grabbed onto the kid, and prepared to head back, but the second he turned around the bullshit front door of the apartment closed and locked him out. Unable to breathe, with flames catching his uniform on fire and part of the ceiling coming down on top of him, Firefighter Jack Pritchard did the only logical thing that came into his mind in the heat of the moment.

He grabbed the kid, held him tight, and leapt over the banister rail towards the second floor.

Pritchard hit the ground hard, crashing into the second floor, where a hose team shot him with some water and evacuated both Pritchard and the boy to ambulances. He’d sustain second-degree burns on large swaths of his body, but it would take a hell of a lot more than that to keep Jack Effin’ Pritchard down.


Pritchard’s next major battle with flesh-melting heat came on August 2nd, 1978, when he was there for one of the most tragic days in FDNY history. It was early in the morning when a huge fire had broken out at Waldbaum’s Supermarket in Brooklyn, trapping several shoppers and construction workers inside. Fire teams had gone in to get those people out, but they’d run into trouble – a lot of it.

Jack Pritchard’s shift had ended a half-hour ago, but it’s not like that was going to stop this guy from hauling ass mask-first into a raging inferno to save his firefighter brothers. Rolling up to the front of the market while firemen swarmed along the rooftop hosing down the out-of-control blaze, Pritchard immediately threw on his fireproof coat and sprinted into the store, seemingly completely oblivious to the smoke and fire swirling around him. Running through the halls of the supermarket without a mask, oxygen tank, or hose line, Pritchard found one of the trapped firemen inside, pulled him out to safety, and then turned back in horror as the roof of the market collapsed, dropping a dozen firefighters down into the blaze. Pritchard sprung into action, rushing back into the store looking for trapped men. On three separate occasions he rushed into the market, ignoring massive burns all down his arms and chest, digging men out from under the rubble with his bare hands, dragging them to safety, then running back into the burning store. When the structure finally collapsed on itself, six firefighters were still inside. It was one of the deadliest days in FDNY history, though if it wasn’t for Pritchard that number would have been even higher. For his actions saving the lives of four firefighters at extreme personal risk to himself, Jack was awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the highest award for individual bravery offered by the City of New York.


For the next 20+ years, Jack Pritchard fought pretty much every major fire in Brooklyn, putting out so many blazes that he’d actually developed effective new tactics for putting out fires in neighborhoods and apartment buildings. He prided himself on being the first man to every fire in the city, a point he drove home one cold winter night when he tried to drive his fire truck over the Rescue 1 team when they’d beaten him to a blaze – Rescue 1’s commanding officer only managed to avoid a make-out session with the Rescue 2 fire truck grill by diving head-first into a snow drift as Pritchard screamed by at full speed. A brash, ball-busting prankster who swore with the best of them and never backed down from a fight, Jack was also famous for breaking into his co-workers’ cars, stealing any food he could find, and then setting it out in the Firehouse kitchen so the entire team to could eat it. He never backed down from a fight, never took sick time, once had two ribs broken in a fist fight with his commanding officer, and routinely preached that there was nothing a firefighter could encounter that couldn’t be solved with two Asprin and a healthy amount of burn cream (they say that his entire upper body is covered in scar tissue because despite his many visits he never stayed in the hospital long enough for his wounds to heal completely).

Pritchard eventually proved himself such a hardcore little bastard that he was promoted to captain, transferred out of Rescue 2, and given his own command – Engine 255 on Rogers Avenue, Brooklyn, a unit that was better known as Captain Jack’s Jolly Rogers.

Captain Jack drilled the Rogers into one of the most efficient Engines in the city, demanding nothing less from his men than for them to have the fastest response times in the five boroughs. Of course, it’s not like Pritchard let his new promotion get in the way of running into burning buildings at the head of his men, either – when he responded to one house fire in 1992 he saw a badly-injured fireman being dragged out of there after failing to rescue the resident trapped inside, so Captain Jack, commander of Engine 255, just threw on his mask, ran in there, crawled through the burning house, carried the 70 year-old occupant out of there, and then spent the next two months running his unit from the burn ward.

Pritchard’s most famous action took place in July of 1998, when the Jolly Rogers were called to a massive fire in a six-story apartment building in the heart of Brooklyn. Arriving on the scene in under three minutes, when Jack leapt out of the fire truck cab he was immediately met by a woman screaming that her baby was trapped up on the fourth floor in a smoke-filled room that was also on fire.

Captain Jack didn’t hesitate. He told his men to get to work, then immediately ran up the stairs without bothering to grab a hose or a mask or an oxygen tank. He charged up to the fourth floor, and saw smoke pouring out from under the door of the apartment. Unable to smash through the locked door, and with time running out, Pritchard suddenly noticed that the woman’s keys were still in the lock on the door, so he took his bulky gloves off, turned the key, opened the door, and was almost knocked unconscious by a backdraft fireball exploding in his face.

But not even a fucking flamethrower to the face was going to keep this madman from saving the baby inside this place, and Jack immediately dropped down and began crawling through the black smoke towards the sound of the crying child. He made his way to the nursery, where he found the baby laying in a plastic playpen. The flames and smoke were so intense in the room that there was no way for him to pull the kid out of there without catching it on fire, so, even though he wasn’t wearing his gloves, he fucking didn’t the most insane shit ever and grabbed the melting plastic playpen with his bare hand and began dragging it out of the room. Burning the shit out of his hand every step of the way, and sucking down unhealthy amounts of carbon monoxide, Pritchard dragged the playpen through the apartment, calling out to his men to meet him at the door. With the playpen (and his hand) melting under the insane heat, Pritchard toughed it out, pulling the kid to safety and getting the baby out of there alive. For his actions he became only the second New York firefighter to receive the Bennett medal twice, and the first one to ever receive three Class One medals for “extreme personal risk” (he also has five Class Two and Class Three medals, but those are only for “great personal risk” and “unusual personal risk”, so no bigs or anything).

NY Firefighters Demonstrate New Escape System For Multi-Story Buildings?

Jack Pritchard retired from the force with the rank of Battalion Chief. In 1999, when the 29-year veteran was receiving a prestigious medal for his service to the city, he didn’t give a big acceptance speech. He just said, “It’s a real honor to be a firefighter,” and walked back to his seat.
–thanks to Badass of the

Chief Edward F. Croker

It is difficult to sum up the career of Edward Franklin Croker in this limited amount of space. Appointed to the FDNY on June 22, 1884 at the age of twenty-one, he shocked everyone with his promotion to Assistant Foreman (now called Lieutenant) just forty-seven days later and with equal speed to Foreman (today’s Captain) on February 25, 1885. This rapid advancement was said to have been for one reason only; that he was the nephew of the most powerful political figure in New York City at the time, Richard Croker, head of Tammany Hall (who served as a fire commissioner 1883-1887.) And while this might be true, the fact was that over the next twenty-seven years, Chief Croker proved himself, time and time again, to be an outstanding firefighter and leader.

On January 22, 1892 Foreman Croker became Battalion Chief Croker. Being named Chief of Department on May 1, 1899, the specter of nepotism was cast upon him but he went on to fulfill his role with extreme diligence. He was the first Chief of Department who did not serve during the volunteer period. He was also the first Chief to use an automobile to respond to alarms.

In 1902, Chief Croker returned to work only several days into a two-month vacation. A vacation of such length was unusual but deemed justified for the hard-working Chief. In granting it, Commissioner Thomas Sturgis re-assigned other chiefs within the Department to cover Croker’s absence. But when Croker returned to work less than two weeks later and sent the chiefs back to the original assignments, the Commissioner saw it as an overstepping of bounds and a rescinding of the orders of a higher authority. Sturgis relieved Croker of command and preferred formal charges. A two-year court battle ensued with a final decision in Croker’s favor resulting in his re-instatement.

Croker epitomized the dichotomy of the fire service; that is to put their expertise to use in fire prevention. He was an outspoken advocate of improving fire safety throughout the City’s commercial and residential buildings. As early as 1894 he testified before the Tenement House Committee that a fatal fire was due, in part, to “the combustible nature of the building and its open construction.” The culmination of this was when he used the fatal sweatshop fire in Newark, New Jersey to once again call attention to the threat of such a catastrophe being repeated in New York. Just four months later it did at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. As a result, he retired and turned over command of the Department on May 1 to Chief John Kenlon. Croker spent the next forty years in the fire prevention business. His company was a leader in the field and exists to today. In 1912 he authored the seminal book, “Fire Prevention.”

His life was both colorful and tumultuous. Family history not withstanding, he was the frequent subject of news coverage as much for his personal life as for his position in the fire department. He went through a contentious separation from his wife in 1908, though they never divorced. In 1914 he built a “completely fire-proof” house in Long Beach, Long Island, said to be the first of its kind in the country. The house warming party he held there was covered in the New York Times.

Chief Croker was a resident of Amityville, Long Island when he died on February 7, 1951 of chronic myocarditis at Tenderling Nursing Home in Lindenhurst. His body was cremated and his remains were turned over to his estranged wife. Their final disposition of are unknown.

Chief Croker’s maternal grandfather was Thomas Franklin who was a member of the NYFD beginning in 1783, serving as Chief from 1811 through 1824.

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