History of the Springfield Fire Department
A Rich History
Springfield's earliest days as a community included a volunteer fire department organized in the 1940's, beginning a rich history of service, compassion and valor.
On August 9, 1847, the City Council and the Fire Commission drew up an ordinance to form the first recorded Ladder Company to cover the City of Springfield. The company consisted of seventeen members, a hand full of painters' ladders, and a two-wheeled cart that was pulled by two of the members. The seventeen members served as volunteers without pay, uniforms, or firefighting gear. Fires were fought in whatever clothes the men were wearing at the time. The men were highly respected by the community and in return, they took deep pride in the service they provided.
As the City grew, more volunteers and better equipment were needed. The fire company added two wheeled hose carts to compliment the original ladder cart. By 1867, the hose and ladder carts became too heavy to be pulled by the men. This marked the beginning of the horse drawn wagons. It also marked the first of four major fires that occurred on the public square. The fire originated in the Northwest corner of the square in a two story building the Clark's Store and the Union Press newspaper office. Since there was not a water system at that time, it quickly spread to the Union Hotel, the Watson, Staley & Company store, a saloon, a residence, two warehouses, and several other small buildings. The P. & W. Shoe Store was torn down to stop the fire from spreading further.
This fire caused a public outcry that lead to the formation of a bucket brigade. The brigade was a 30 member team the formed two lines of men and buckets. One line passed buckets full of water to the fire while the second line passed empty buckets back to be filled. Although formed as a response for fire protection, the group was more like a social club. When vacancies occurred, the group elected the replacement member. If three or more objected to the replacement, they were excluded.
To be a member, the man had to own his personal fire bucket. Fire buckets differ from normal pails because they feature a bubble on the bottom. The rounded bottom allowed the buckets to automatically tip to the side and start filling when placed in the water. It also prevented one from setting it down, which would defeat the purpose of having the bucket at the fire. The buckets were kept moving until the fire was out.
On March 22, 1876, the City took delivery of their new fire alarm bell. The combined weight of the cap and clapper was an astounding 1,496 pounds. Prior to the arrival of the bell, gunshots were used to summon the bucket brigade.
On May 31, 1879, a volunteer fire department was established with George D. Emery elected as Chief. The volunteer fire department differed from the fire companies in that 8 of the men were "dedicated volunteers" which meant they lived at the firehouses to keep coal and wood on the fires.
New equipment was a major event since there was little funding for the companies. Purchasing power was limited, due to the lack of revenue. The volunteer department held an annual Fireman's Ball to raise funds. The proceeds were used to help pay the cost of feed and equipment. Businesses also came to the aid of the firefighters.
A North and a South fire company evolved with stiff competition between the two. The north station was located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Commercial Street. It was an old school house ironically named the "Hosehouse School". The building was donated by George Everetts. The south station was located at 414 College Street on the "City Lot" where the farmers market was held and horses were tied.
In 1880, the infamous Springfield Wagon Factory located at 313 West Mill Street caught fire. The general officers were totally destroyed by the blaze.
In 1887, a Gamwell fire alarm box system was installed throughout the City. Forty-one boxes were initially installed so that anyone seeing a fire could go to the box, break the glass, and pull the handle so it would tap out a code at the fire station. Firefighters responded to the box to find out the location of the fire. As the City grew, a total of 78 boxes were installed, only to be removed in 1955 due to the large number of prank calls. 1890 In 1890, the Railroad donated a water tank that was mounted on a cart. This was a huge benefit for the fire department when the bucket brigade was not near a water source. A new hand drawn No. 3 Babcock hook and ladder truck was also placed in service but was too large for the building, so it was covered with tin between alarms. The price tag: $1,000.
A fire in the Perkin’s Grand Opera House broke out during this year. The Opera House, located at 867 North Boonville was totally destroyed. Also in 1896, the North and South fire companies were combined into one paid department. The department consisted of 15 members including 1 chief and seven firefighters at each of the two stations.
On February 1, 1897, the volunteer fire department was officially changed to a paid department. The men worked a continuous duty schedule. For meals, one man would leave at a time to walk home or ride the trolley. For those living farther away, their wife would bring a meal basket to them. Each man was allowed one day off a week, providing no one else called in sick. Starting pay was $75 per month for the chief and $60 per month for the firefighters. Uniforms also became a mandatory requirement but were the responsibility of the firefighter. William Canada was named as Fire Chief to the newly organized department. During the next 16 years, George Everetts, Jack Smades, Hiram McGloughlin, Dan Savage, and Doug “Sherm” Reed served as Fire Chief. Additionally, there were several other persons appointed to serve as Fire Chief for a period of one or two days.
In 1901, Springfield took delivery of its first steam fire engine. It would pump a whopping 35 gallons per minute. At the same time, the City paid the private water companies to install a total of 60 fire hydrants at a cost of $50 each. The City was billed a monthly bill for each hydrant. (In 1999, Springfield has over 6,100 fire hydrants with most capable of delivering more than 1,500 gallons of water per minute. These hydrants are provided to the City by City Utilities at no charge.)
In 1903, the Springfield Water Company donated two vertical boiler, piston stroke, steam engines. They were made by the Metropolitan Iron Works Company and cost $8,500 each. Two horses pulled the steamer at station #2 while three pulled the one at station #1. During this same year, station #2 was relocated to the corner of Boonville Avenue and Commercial Street. It housed the steam engine, a hose cart, a hose reel, and an old homemade ladder truck that was pulled by one horse.
A report by the Insurance Survey Bureau compiled a report on the status of the fire department. It noted the department had 1 chief, 14 men and two extra men, 11 horses, 5,600 feet of good hose, two ladder trucks, two four-wheel hose carts and two extra hose carts. Each man has one day a week off, and 2 men are off for meals at a time in each house. There are an average of 16-18 alarms per month. Station #1 was heated with coal, and had a gas stove for heated bath water and gas lighting. The alarm switchboard wiring was poor and has caused fire.
In 1906, Station #1 was rebuilt on its same location with a beautiful two bay station which now faced North onto College Street rather than West.
A blaze tore through the beautiful Baldwin Theater located at 318 St. Louis Street. The building was a total loss.
In 1910, the City purchased a 55' manually operated ladder truck. This was the first, and last, tiller ladder purchased in Springfield. The tiller ladder has a driver in the front and in the rear. The tillerman has complete control of the turning of the rear of the apparatus. This allowed the long ladder truck to turn down narrow streets to get to the fire. In 1916, the horses were replaced with a motorized unit to pull the ladder. The ladder remained in service until 1941.
In 1912, two additional stations were added to protect the growing City. Station #3 was located at 460 South National Avenue and it's sister station #4 was located at 1902 North National Avenue. The one bay stations cost $5,200 each and took 57 days to complete.
On May 4, 1913, three 1913 American LaFrance motorized fire engines and an American LaFrance chemical truck were purchased. The chemical truck was state of the art with two 55-gallon drums of Soda/Acid mix to propel the water to great heights. The chemical truck was stationed at Fire Station #1 and responded to all calls in the City while the other three engines were distributed to the other stations. In May of 1913, W.R. Price was named Fire Chief and would serve the department in that capacity for the next 32 years, the longest of any Chief to date.
The new equipment and Fire Chief quickly received their trial by fire. On June 9, only one month after their arrival, the Northeast corner of the square caught fire. Eleven businesses were totally destroyed. This fire is still known as "the big one", but it could have been much worse had the new engines not been in service. The fire loss was the first fire in Springfield's history to exceed $1,000,000 in damages.
In December of 1919, the firefighters organized as the "City Firemen's Union Local 152". The union was affiliated with the International Association of Firefighters.
In 1925, three new 1925 American LaFrance 750 gallon per minute pumpers with enough hosebed space for 900' of 2 1/2" hose.
In 1926, a Salvage Company was added to the fire department. The salvage truck would spread tarps to protect property from damage while the other firefighters were putting the fire out. The insurance companies paid for the manning of the vehicle. The companies knew it was more economical to pay the cost of operating the truck rather than pay for the losses that could have been prevented. At the time that the Salvage Company was added, the department went from a continuous duty system of work hours to a two-platoon system. Each platoon, or shift as they are referred to now, worked 24 hours and then was off 24 hours. This cut the workweek to 72 hours.
By 1929, the Chief of the Department was paid a salary of $300 per month. Firefighters were still paid $60 per month.
In 1939, another major fire occurred on the City square. The fire began in the Newberry’s Department Store.
In 1941, the department purchased a 100' hydraulically operated, American LaFrance aerial ladder. The ladder replaced the 1910, 55' mechanical ladder. The open cab (convertible) seated 3 in the front seat and 2 firefighters facing the rear directly behind the front seat. Total cost: $9,600. 1942 In 1942, two 750-gpm American LaFrance engines were purchased for stations #1 and #2 for a cost of $7,100 each. During this same year, a major fire occurred in and destroyed the Electric Fox Theatre.
On May 1, 1944, Fire Station #5 was added to the growing list of stations.
The last major fire on the square occurred on December 16, 1945. Eleven businesses were destroyed. Five firefighters were injured; two were hospitalized. In July, Marion S. Baker was named as Fire Chief to replace Chief Price who had served the department since the late 1800’s.
In January 1947, John W. Smyth took over as head of the department replacing Chief Baker. Later that year, the City enacted a pension plan for the firefighters and police officers. A firefighter would be entitled to a $100 per month pension for serving the City. The department had a total of 80 personnel within the fire department, of those, twenty-one were eligible to retire under the new plan. This also marked the first enclosed cab that the Department owned. The front seats were enclosed while the “jump” seats were only partially covered
In 1949, another 100' American LaFrance aerial ladder was purchased to help cover the growing City. The first 1,000 gpm pumper was also delivered. In December, Warren Hays was appointed Fire Chief to replace Chief Smyth. Chief Hays was the former Police Chief for the City of Springfield.
In May of 1952, 12 year veteran Ray Fraker replaced Chief Hays to head the department. Later during the year, a new Fire Station #6 was added to the City. Located at 1201 South Campbell Avenue, Station #6 was a two-story, 2,520 square foot station. The station also included a six story drill tower ($30,000) and a pump test pit.
A huge fire ravaged the Springfield Union Stockyards located at the corner of Division Street and Kansas Avenue. Over 300 head of animals perished in the blaze.
This marked a huge turning point in the use of technology in the fire service with the installation of the first two-way, Motorola radios in apparatus. This allowed the apparatus to be in contact with the units while they were out of their quarters rather than only by telephone and alarm boxes. The department also purchased two Handy Talkies for the fire commanders to use at fire scenes. 1958 Two new Stations were added in
Fire Station #7, located at 2129 East Sunshine Street, and Fire Station #8, located at 660 South Scenic Avenue, used identical floor plans. The stations are one-story, two bay stations with 3,034 square feet of living space.
Chief Fraker retires and is replaced by Harlen Boehm. Chief Boehm was a 20 year veteran of the department.
In 1962, the headquarters station (#1) was moved to 235 North Kimbrough after a temporary stay at the corner of St. Louis Street and Kimbrough Avenue while the new station was being completed. The station is a four bay, two story station with office space for fire administration as well as a separate building for the fire alarm/communications center.
William Morris replaced Chief Boehm as Chief of the Fire Department. He would serve for five years in that position.
In 1968, Fire Station #4 was relocated farther Northeast from the original one bay station. Now located at 2423 North Delaware Avenue, Fire Station #4 is a two bay, 3,367 square foot station.
In 1969, Fire Station #9 was opened. Located at 450 West Walnut Lawn, the station is a 2 bay station with 2,590 square feet of living space. The station was built to provide faster responses to the growing south-southwest corner of the City.
In 1970, Fire Station #3 was relocated farther East and went from a small one bay station to a 3,804 square foot, three bay station. The relocated station is situated at 205 North Patterson Avenue. A third shift was added to reduce the workweek to 56 hours. Each shift worked 24 hours on-duty and 48 hours off-duty. Chief Morris was replaced by Roy J. Craig, a 28 year veteran of the department.
On January 1, 1973, a fire broke out in an abondoned rock quarry located at the corner of National Avenue and Trafficway. The quarry was currently being used as a dump site. The attendant at the payment shack was overcome by toxic fumes and died. Engines pumped night and day blocking the roads. Due to the thick smoke, neighboring businesses were forced closed for several months. Eventually, a water main was laid up to the edge of the quarry. The water level rose until the fire was offically declared out in February 1976, ending the longest fire in Springfield history.
In April of 1975, Charles Grant became the newest Fire Chief of the Department. Chief Grant was promoted from the inspection bureau of the department.
On February 16, 1970, a fire was reported at the Associated Wholesale Grocery Warehouse at 3201 East Division Street. It would end as the costliest blaze to date for the department, exceeding $2.5 million. During the peak of the fire, several firefighters became trapped beneath a fallen roof. A valiant rescue was made and in the end, three firemen were injured; two critically and one was minor. Later in 1979, Fire Station #10 was opened. Located at 2245 E. Galloway Street, the station is a 3 bay station with 3,800 square feet of total living space. The station was designed to accommodate two fully manned companies.
With the retirement of Chief Grant, William Penland was promoted to Fire Chief. Chief Penland entered the fire department in 1958.
In 1986, Fire Station #2 was relocated to 608 West Commercial Street. The four bay, 4,439 square foot station was designed to house two fully manned companies and a Battalion Chief. The station was designed from the plans of Fire Station #10.
Phillip Johnston was hired as the Fire Chief. Chief Johnston had formerly served as Fire Chief for the Chico, CA Fire Department before accepting the position in Springfield.
In order to provide a location for training, the department requested and received the abandoned Northwest Treatment Plant. The building and grounds underwent minor changes in order to accommodate fire department recruit classes. This would help the department as it underwent a re-evaluation by the Insurance Services Office (ISO) during this year. The department successfully went from a Class 4 City to a Class 3. The better classification resulted in insurance savings to both businesses and individuals. Springfield was the first City in the state of Missouri to receive a Class 3 rating through the grading schedule. Only St. Louis held a better rating, which they received based upon their loss experience.
Assistant Chief Jim Dancy was appointed to replace Chief Johnston. Chief Dancy was a 23 year veteran of the department. 1993 The Police/Fire pension system went from a 2% multiplier to a 2.5% multiplier, causing an increase in the number of retirements. The department hired many new employees this year, including its first two female firefighters. 1996 In May of 1996, Steve Strader was appointed to replace Chief Dancy after his retirement. At the time, Chief Strader had served 19 years on the department.
During 1997, the department added an 11th fire station and began the relocation of Fire Station #5. Fire Station #11 was built in the extreme South part of Springfield and crews moved into the station the last week of October. Located at 4940 South Fremont Avenue, the station has 4,200 square feet of total living space. The station was designed to accommodate two fully manned companies and a Battalion Chief. The station also included an outdoor walking track and exercise area for local residents. A playground was added for the children the following year. The station also allowed for the addition of 15 new personnel bringing the fire department to 211 total personnel and the current budget to $11,205,634. Because of an anonymous donor, two Cairns “Iris” thermal imaging helmets were contributed to the department. These represented the latest in fire technology and aids firefighters in “seeing” through the smoky atmosphere. Each helmet cost $25,000. On December 27, 1997, a fire ignited by a remodeling crew ripped through a building at the corner of Walnut Street and Jefferson Avenue. The three alarm blaze destroyed building and damaged or destroyed several businesses.
Fire Station #5 was completed and opened on March 22, 1998. Located at 2750 West Kearney Street in Northwest Springfield, and is the sister station to Fire Station #11. Along with the walking tracks, exercise areas, and playground, this station also included a 450 square foot community room. During the fall, the department took possession of a new 1998 Sutphen 100’ Aerial Platform. This marked the first fully enclosed cab for a ladder company. During 1998, the department also underwent another evaluation by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). The department once again bettered its classification. This time the rating went from a Class 3 to a Class 2. This rating change would help businesses lower their fire insurance premiums. Springfield was the first City in the state of Missouri to receive a Class 2 rating through the grading schedule.
2000 and beyond
As we moved into a new millennium, the Springfield Fire Department continued to see notable changes. Mobile computer terminals were installed to improve the efficiency of dispatching units to emergencies. Stations #1, 6, and 8 were replaced and a new station - fire station #12 - was built on the City's east side. The Department saw the loss of its dive team, but gained two technical rescue teams. The Department switched from light blue uniform shirts, to the dark blue you now see today and fire marshals switched from 24-hour shifts to a 40-hour work week. The Springfield Fire Department also made the change from first responders to EMT-B response to provide basic life support on medical calls. The Department established automatic aid agreements with several surrounding departments to improve response across the region.
In 2006, Chief Dan Whisler retired and Barry Rowell was promoted to the top seat. When Rowell retired in 2009, David Hall became the Fire Chief. The Department reduced its ISO rating to become an ISO 2 department and in 2009 was accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. In 2012, the Department hired its first Fire and Life Safety Educator.
Two of our most visible recent changes occurred in 2013. The Department adopted a new logo and began making the switch back to red fire engines, with the purchase of Engines 1, 2, 4 and 9. Along with those new engines came the use of Compressed Air Foam - a more efficient way to extinguish fires. After Hall retired in 2016, David Pennington was named Fire Chief in May 2017.