The FDNY is one of New York’s few municipal organizations whose employees get clubhouses. While the NYPD has its precincts and the Parks Department has office outposts, The FDNY firehouses that host New York’s 200+ fire companies feel more like homes than government offices. That’s because in many ways, they are. While firefighters will be the first to tell you that these firehouses are not four-star accommodations, they do usually feature a full-service kitchen, bunk rooms, a den, a gym, and everything else you would expect from a place that houses up to a couple dozen of New York’s Bravest at any given time. That’s because firefighters are typically working several 24-hour shifts a week. And as such, it’s understandable that the houses become like second homes for firefighters. While they wait on fire alarms, they are cooking together, eating together, killing time around the house together, and taking care of all the daily chores required to keep up a home, from doing the dishes and mopping the floors, to putting up new walls and replacing broken tile.
And like any good fraternal or sororal organization where people live and spend time together under a common banner, the FDNY has a strong culture of identity. Houses have nicknames, mascots, and symbols that reflect their character and define their identity. Art is one of the main ways that this is expressed, and you can find beautiful, intriguing pieces of “firefighter folk art” hidden all over New York fire stations, from custom grillwork on trucks to intricate murals on fire house doors. One genre of FDNY art in particular offers a wonderful window into the culture of the different houses and companies: the Firehouse Patch. Traded regularly between firefighters and FDNY-fans alike (the FDNY does have a very healthy fan base), these patches are artifacts rarely seen by the uninitiated. But for those who do get to examine them, they offer a wealth of information about the city's various companies. Take a peek through these little woven keyholes and learn about FDNY subculture, and the way a fire company’s identity is created.
The first thing you’ll notice as you dig into the world of FDNY patches is that they are really diverse. While some are generic mascots (tigers, eagles, etc.), they more often reflect the sense of humor, dedication, playfulness, bravery, toughness and general character of the firemen that wear them. That’s because, like everything around New York firehouses, they are made and designed by the firefighters themselves.
However, the more patches you see, the more common tropes begin to emerge. Below are some of the more popular themes that you might come across:
The "Work Is Hell" Patches
When your day-to-day responsibilities involve being surrounded by flaming wreckage, it’s understandable that references to Hell and the Devil come easy.
The "Mega-Tough" Patches
Fighting fires is terrifying, and it takes a tough character to do the job. Here are some tough-ass firehouse patches for some tough-ass firefighters.
The "Goofball" Patches
Ultimately, a lot of the firefighters designing these patches are dad-aged guys, and a lot of them have an endearing, dad-aged sense of humor.
Last (and perhaps my favorite patch genre) are the “This is Where We Live” patches. These patches show how firefighters take a sense of pride in the communities in which they’re stationed. In Chinatown, firefighters might live in Crown Heights or Staten Island, but for a good chunk of the week, they’re Chinatown residents. They come to take pride in that identity and often craft their house’s identity around it. In this way, the art of New York’s firehouses starts to reflect the diversity of the city itself.
The "This Is Where We Live" Patches
A decidedly frightening patch for the fire company next to the Bronx Zoo.
A firefighter from Rockaway Beach, one of NYC’s premier surf destinations, gets fully pitted on a giant wave of fire.
Chinatown’s Dragon Fighters take on an auspicious Chinese symbol.
Grand Army Plaza’s iconic arch is ablaze in this tribute to local architecture from the FDNY in Park Slope.
Steeplechase Park’s famous funny face at Coney Island graces the labels of local beer, tattoos of local residents, and the local FDNY patch.
Coastal firefighters in Brighton Beach are also surfing to the rescue, but they are hanging ten from within the safety of their vehicles.