Raleigh Fire Department celebrates Centennial

CarolinaFireJournal -

01/11/2012 -

This year the Raleigh Fire Department celebrates a milestone: their 100th anniversary as a career fire department. Special events are planned including a downtown birthday party on June 9, 2012. North Carolina’s Capitol City is protected by the second largest fire department in the state, but it started very small. Let’s turn the clock back 99 years.

In 1912, five volunteer fire companies and some 120 firemen protected Raleigh’s four square miles and nearly 20,000 residents. They operated five pieces of horse-drawn fire equipment: three hose wagons, one steam engine, and one service ladder truck. Fires were fought using hydrant pressure, though the steamer was used for major fires or calls outside the city. Alarms were sounded from Gamewell street boxes.

But insurance underwriters and city officials were seeing the need for an overhaul. Though the volunteer Raleigh Fire Department was 49 years strong-- next year also marks their 150th anniversary-- it was time for a change. It was time for a full-time fire chief, full-time firefighters, and motorized fire engines.

The reorganized Raleigh Fire Department started with two hose companies and 15 firefighters, plus Fire Chief Sherwood Brockwell and Assistant Fire Chief Charles Farmer. A third station and third hose company was placed in service within two months. The steamer and ladder truck were reserve apparatus.


Learn more history by visiting the Raleigh Fire Museum at 105 Keeter Center Drive. Located in a training center classroom, the museum is open on the second Saturday of each month. The hours are 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.raleighfirehistory.org.

June 9, 2012 Raleigh Fire Department 100th Birthday Party. Planned activities include an apparatus parade and muster!

Chief Brockwell, a veteran volunteer firefighter in Raleigh, had been sent to New York City for a special fire school. He even spent some time at the American LaFrance plant, learning how motor apparatus was built. The city soon took delivery of two chemical hose trucks built by American LaFrance, followed by a triple combination pumper. The last horse was retired in 1915.

There were some early upgrades: a new Station 2 was completed after the county reclaimed the property used by the prior building. An aerial ladder company was added in 1916. They became a two-piece company in 1922 with the addition of a service truck.

By mid-decade, two more fire stations had opened in growing areas of the city: Station 4 on Jefferson Street and Station 5 on Park Drive. The Raleigh Fire Department of 1926 had five fire stations, with about 40 firefighters operating five engines and two ladder trucks. Calls that calendar year numbered 364.

Apparatus in front of Fire Station 1 on West Morgan Street in 1920.

North Carolina State archives photo.

Raleigh grew slowly in the years approaching World War II. After the United States entered the conflict in 1941, the fire department was augmented by several squads of volunteer auxiliary firefighters. These civilians were trained in fire, rescue and first aid techniques. They participated in city-wide blackout drills, and even the occasional competition.

The war years also saw a drop in fire department personnel, as members entered the service or took jobs in other industries. Wartime restrictions also impacted the construction of new buildings and the purchase of new apparatus. The replacement of Station 1 on West Morgan Street — built in 1898 and condemned by the time of its closure in 1941 — took over a decade to complete.

Raleigh Fire Department Centennial Challenge Coins for Sale

The Raleigh Fire Department Historical Society is helping with both planning and raising money for events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Raleigh Fire Department next year. The first fundraiser is a sale of centennial challenge coins. The coins are 1.5 inches in diameter and cost $10 per coin, plus shipping.
Coins can be ordered online at www.raleighfirehistory.org.
Or send a check for $10 plus $3 shipping to:
Raleigh Fire Department Historical Society PO Box 560
 Raleigh, NC, 27601

Also during the 1940s, Raleigh’s sixth fire station opened in a rented building at 2513 Fairview Road on the northwest side of the city. Engine 6 operated a 1919 American LaFrance pumper, purchased used from Farmville, N.C. They moved across Oberlin Road to a new building that was completed in 1949.

By mid-century, the city’s six engine companies protected 65,679 residents and 10.9 square miles. The Raleigh Fire Department of 1950 was staffed by 84 members and answered 911 calls that calendar year. They had new tools to their trade, such as self-contained breathing apparatus. A two-person squad truck with a small pump and water tank was also on the roster.

Personnel were now working 24-hour shifts, a new Fire Prevention Bureau was organized the prior year, and a new retirement system was in place. An IAFF local chapter was 12 years strong, and members’ wives would soon organize a Ladies Auxiliary. They performed charity work, and also brought refreshments to fire scenes.

As the city tripled in geographic size during the 1950s, the fire department experienced significant growth under the leadership of Fire Chiefs Alvin Lloyd and Jack Keeter.

A seventh fire station was opened, replacements for Station 1 and Station 3 were opened, and a training tower was built. Modern apparatus (Mack, FWD, American LaFrance) replaced all front-line engines, and a new tractor-drawn aerial ladder was delivered. A rescue squad was organized, and radios were added on trucks and at stations.

Hose Company 3 in front of Fire Station 3 on West Hargett Street, circa 1913.

North Carolina State archives photo.

That decade also saw the department’s first line-of-duty death. Driver Vernon Smith was seriously injured on November 14, 1952, when Engine 6 — using a 1926 American LaFrance reserve engine — overturned while returning from a call. Smith returned to light duty, but continued to be treated for his injuries. After many surgeries, he died on March 10, 1956.

City growth in the sixties and seventies continued the expansion of the fire department. More stations were opened, and others were replaced. Station 2 — located in Memorial Auditorium — was relocated farther south, Station 4 was relocated farther north, and Station 5 was rebuilt on the same spot. (The bricks from Station 5 were saved and used to build a smokehouse at the training tower.)

During the 1970s, six new fire stations were opened. They were designed by architect William C. McGhee Jr. His signature two-bay, single-story design was used in over a dozen fire department facilities.

The ranks of the fire department were growing, both in size and diversity. The first black firefighters in six decades had joined the department in 1963. A third platoon of personnel was added in 1970. The first female firefighters joined in 1978. By that time, their recruit academy included EMT training. The Raleigh Fire Department first responder program started in 1979.

Magazine advertisement showing Raleigh’s 1950 FWD pumper.


In 1970, the first Mack CF pumper was delivered. The popular apparatus was a fixture of the fire department for decades. Fifteen pumpers were delivered between 1970 and 1982, plus one aerial platform. The last Mack was retired from reserve duty in the 2000s.

From 1970 to 1990, the city’s geography nearly doubled in size. It grew from 55.17 to 91.40 square miles. The population had continued to grow, from 150,255 to 212,092 residents. The fire department continued to expand, adding four new stations in the eighties and two new stations (plus a relocated station) in the nineties. The number of personnel grew from 196 to 362 members.

Leadership changes included the hiring of the first fire chiefs from outside the department; Thomas Kuster in 1983 and Sherman Pickard in 1986. Both brought innovation and change.

The occupation of firefighter was also evolving. Medical calls were growing in frequency, and would surpass fire calls by 1995. Specialized disciplines were being added, beginning with a haz-mat team in the 1980s. Technical rescue training was added in the 1990s, with high-level, confined-space, and collapse rescue.

A century of conflagrations

The Pine Knoll Townes fire on February 22, 2007, destroyed 29 homes and displaced 72 people.
Photo by Lee Wilson
1915 - News & Observer building and others on Martin Street
1928 - Yarborough House on Fayetteville Street
1935 - Efird’s Department Store on Fayetteville Street 1943 - Bellas-Hess clothing store on Wilmington Street 1959 - Manmur Bowling Center on Hillsborough Street 1964 - Bryan Building in Cameron Village
1970 - Peebles Hotel on Hargett Street
1981 - Mangel Building on Fayetteville Street
1992 - IGA Grocery on Person Street
2007 - Pine Knoll Townes off Capital Boulevard
2011 - Wakefield Plantation Golf Course off Falls of Neuse Road

Growth from 2000 to 2011 included the addition of a fourth battalion and three more ladder companies. Facilities were improved with the opening of a larger maintenance shop and services center, and a new training tower. Services were expanded, including a Construction Division added to the Office of the Fire Marshal. And the Raleigh Fire Department joined forces with Cary, Chapel Hill, and Durham fire departments to create a USAR task force.

Today, the Raleigh Fire Department protects 144.8 square miles and 403,892 residents with 27 fire stations including 28 engines, eight ladders, three rescues, and four battalion chiefs. Personnel number 575 uniformed and civilian members. In 2010, they answered 38,151 calls.

Visit www.raleighfirehistory.org to learn more about the history of the Raleigh Fire Department.

Comments & Ratings

  6/9/2012 10:24:29 PM
Molly McGee Vidovich 

William Clyde McGee, Jr. 
This is such a great celebration for me, as I am William Clyde McGee Jr.'s granddaughter. June 9th is his birthday, and if he were still alive today it would be such an honor to celebrate with him today! Thank you for the mention.

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