It's 12 p.m., and lecture has just begun. Your hand moves to your mouth to stifle a yawn, and as you feel your eyes begin to close … 


The classic anthem of a Philadelphia Fire Department ambulance, one of the 60 that the PFD houses across several stations, and one of the 50 PFD ambulances in service 24/7, 365 days a year. Although cities such as Chicago and New York have more ambulances than the PFD (80 and 397, respectively), the PFD has one of the busiest EMS agencies.

In fact, from 2019 to 2021, the PFD operated the busiest ambulance in the nation. In 2019, the PFD’s Medic 8 ambulance, based in Kensington, oversaw an annual record of 9,311 calls. And with the steady climb of opioid overdose fatalities in Philadelphia reaching record highs over the past few years, the necessity for rapid medical emergency services is dire.

In 2022 alone, Philadelphia witnessed over 1,400 unintentional overdose deaths, with 80% being fentanyl-related. All PFD ambulances carry Narcan (naloxone), which reverses the effects of a seemingly fatal opioid overdose. The success of overdose reversal by Narcan has been reported to be as high as 95%, which goes to show that Narcan saves lives. All PFD members are trained to administer Narcan, which is a vital skill to have in an overdose emergency. 

Philadelphia’s climbing number of emergencies, beyond overdoses, reflects on the growing number of calls the PFD receives. In an average year, PFD ambulances receive 250,000+ EMS calls. This statistic doesn’t include the fact that the PFD is also a fire department, as clearly stated in its name.

In 2021, the PFD responded to almost 50,000 fire incidents, extinguishing around 3,353 structure fires. Fire incidents include a large variety of emergencies, ranging from hazmat spills to extricating car crash victims and putting out building fires. 

As Executive Chief of the PFD Derek Bowmer puts it, “We deal with accidents. We deal with fires, of course. We deal with emergencies that could happen with someone stuck in an elevator. … We have responded even when it's not an emergency, plumbing, electrical, cats in a tree—that does happen.”

The PFD is equipped with almost 3,000 first responders to handle all kinds of emergent situations. All PFD firefighters are trained EMTs, and many of them are trained through the PFD’s own EMT class. EMTs are able to perform basic life support services on patients, which include taking their vital signs, splinting, and performing primary and secondary physical assessments. EMTs are also able to administer a select number of vital medications like Narcan, as well as epinephrine through an EPIPEN, which treats severe allergic reactions. 

According to Bowmer, with over 1.5 million people in Philadelphia, the PFD handles its EMS system with 63 medic units, 9 of which are in service only during peak time, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.. Throughout the day, PFD services around “700 to 1,000 runs … and the majority of those are EMS calls,” Bowmer says. 

Over the past century and a half, the PFD has evolved to become one of the largest EMS and fire systems in the country. The PFD is also one of the oldest fire departments, with a long and rich history behind it. 

Before the PFD took over as Philadelphia’s main fire department, the city was protected by about 90 different volunteer companies, such as the Union Fire Company, spearheaded by, you guessed it, Benjamin Franklin. Officially founded on March 15, 1871, the PFD began as a group of 355 men gathered at Spring Garden Hall to be sworn in as members of the paid squad. The squad started off with only 22 engine and five ladder companies, numbers which grew greatly over time alongside Philadelphia’s exponentially rising population.

As Philadelphia started to experience larger scale emergencies, the PFD also adapted by equipping its members with both medical and fire experience. The PFD adopted EMS protocols in the late ’60s and early ’70s, training all their firefighters to become EMTs. 

With the great responsibility of protecting Philadelphia’s citizens, alongside running one of the busiest services in the country, the question remains of how the PFD, and its leaders, manage to do it all. 

In the eyes of Bowmer, the PFD is not one isolated entity acting alone. He explains, “The fire department is nothing without all the other city agencies that we deal with. … We just went through a pandemic. I tell you that we would not have been unable to do some of the things without us having partnerships with all of the people that we did.”

The PFD has numerous avenues of support, including the Philadelphia Police Department and the Fireman’s Hall Museum, located in Philadelphia’s historic Old City. The Fireman’s Hall Museum is an active project that has documented Philadelphia’s fire history since its beginnings. 

“The purpose of the museum since 1967 was to have a point where we could revisit and relive the history of firefighting in Philadelphia and within the Philadelphia Fire Department, but we could educate the community on what is safe practice,” Brian Anderson, a firefighter, as well as a curator and historian for the Fireman’s Hall Museum, states. Concerning the importance of protection and prevention, Anderson also mentions that a vital part of the PFD’s daily operations is the continuity of education and being able to learn from each call the agency is dispatched to.

“Going back to studies on what was done and how things could have been done differently builds on how to make the environment safer, and if it makes sense in a dangerous situation, much more safer for the [PFD] members.” 

On top of the duty the PFD has towards Philadelphians, the agency also strives to foster an open and welcoming environment for its medical professionals and their families. Both Anderson and Bowmer acknowledge that, for a first responder, family plays an important role in their ability to do their job, especially since that job is dangerous. 

“I want somebody to make sure that my family has a shot, that we are subject to the same care that we provide other people in the city,” Anderson says. 

To support the families of firefighters who have passed, the PFD established a funeral team around five years ago. According to Bowmer, “A funeral team is responsible for taking care of the members that have passed on throughout the department, whether it be line–of–duty, active members, or retired members. … We've had all of the families of our members that you don't really get a chance to integrate with, and we make their worst day kind of better.”

While this initiative is emotionally overwhelming, both Anderson and Bowmer believe that it is gratifying to be able to help the families of PFD members who are dealing with tragedies. 

Whether it be within the PFD or the entirety of Philadelphia, it is clear that a sense of community drives the PFD’s daily operations and initiatives in the City of Brotherly Love. Just last year, in October, the PFD organized a fundraiser for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On Nov. 21, the PFD donated $10,000 in funds to Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in support of breast cancer research. 

Another initiative that the PFD has been working on for over seven years is the operation of CAT, or Community Action Teams. CAT was initially created to assist people who had just lost their house in a fire and had nowhere else to go for a long time. In an effort to help these people and support the Red Cross, the commissioner of the PFD established CAT to protect those who are displaced by emergencies. 

CAT is a significant part of the PFD’s overarching mission of fire prevention. Within the Fireman’s Hall Museum, Anderson and other museum educators instruct the public on safe practices. In fact, a large demographic that the PFD targets for fire prevention education is youth, from young children to university students.

So whether it be the blaring alarm or the bright red and blue flashing lights of a PFD ambulance that captures your attention, take a moment to realize and then appreciate the importance of that vehicle and the professionals who staff it. For the past 150 years, the Philadelphia Fire Department has been working towards building a “cleaner, greener, safer city with economic opportunities for everyone,” as Bowmer puts it. 

“We're always on the front lines. We're gonna continue to be on the front lines, supporting our citizens, and we'll be here for another 150 years hopefully. These are our models every day, and we stand by those.”