“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”– Kurt Vonnegut
Throughout the history of civilization one of the greatest threats to men has always been fire. In a moment, fire can go from small and controlled to completely out of control spelling destruction for anything in its path. With this danger in mind Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 was formed by state charter on June 22, 1833. The charter called for a volunteer company of up to 30 members who would protect the Village of Essex from fire and it is to this first fire company that we can trace our roots.
The character of the original fire company was largely dictated by the community it was sworn to protect. Unlike current members of the department who serve the town out of a sense of duty and community spirit, the founding members of the fire department were primarily the owners of ship building companies or businesses in town who feared what a fire would mean to them economically. These men cared for their community, but their primary motivation was the protection of the business community because without the businesses there would be no town. The political climate of the day was also made known in the charter; it allowed for 12 members of the fire department to be exempt from military duty so the town’s fire protection would not be depleted in times of war. It is from this group of 30 men, mostly business men, the fire department began.
The first fire house was located on what is now North Main Street at the intersection with Bushnell Street. This fire house was nothing more than a barn to house the original hand-drawn engine purchased by the company from Brooklyn, New York in 1834. This engine served as the primary piece of equipment until it was replaced by a new engine in 1881. During the middle of the 19th century most fires were faced using the traditional method: bucket brigade. Many of the historical reports from the mid-1800s note that a fire would occur and the department would be summoned via bells or shouts; however, by the time the fire department would arrive much of the structure would have been destroyed or the fire would have been contained by citizens prior to their arrival. It is this spirit of neighbor helping neighbor that has been the single greatest tradition in the history of this department.
One of the more unique changes the fire company underwent was a name change sometime around 1846. There is no documentation of the specific reason for the change; however, the logbook for the meeting held May 3, 1846 identifies the department as the Washington Fire Company. It is not possible to say with 100% certainty, but it is probable this change was made to pay tribute to George Washington. Many organizations underwent name changes during this same period to pay their respects to the first President and it is likely the Essex Fire Department followed suit. Further support of this theory comes from accounts of the annual Firemen’s Balls recounting the flag draped photos of George and Martha Washington ever present at these events. This name change was short lived and in May of 1859 the department officially reverted to Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 though it was still referred to as the Washington Fire Company in the media until the early 1900s.
The modern fire department owes its size to a reorganization and second charter in 1853. At this time, the size of the town was growing and had surpassed the capabilities of the fire company. As a result, a second charter was adopted that created Essex Fire Engine Company Number 2 and called for a department of no more than 60 or less than 25 individuals to supplement Company 1. Though Company 2 was short lived and was soon incorporated into Company 1, the maximum number of members remained and stands to this day.
In 1897 Nathaniel Bushnell, a local businessman and the owner of the land where the original fire house stood, decided to build a structure on his property and it became necessary for the fire department to relocate their engine house. At the same time the Baptist Church was looking to sell land they owned so the fire house was relocated to vacant land on Prospect Street. In December of 1897 the town purchased the land from the Baptist Church and gave it to the fire department for their use. Interestingly, the fire apparatus was relocated to the new location on August 7, 1897, four months prior to the land officially being purchased for its new use. With numerous additions and remodeling this fire house served as fire headquarters until 2000.
Despite the number of changes the fire department underwent in these formative years the single largest change occurred on March 8, 1894. It was on this day that the Connecticut Valley Manufacturing Company, located where Centerbrook Architects stands today, burned. This fire was perhaps the most significant in the history of the fire department because it marked the first time in the sixty-one year history of the department that the Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 responded to a call west of the railroad tracks. Previously, the fire department from the Comstock & Cheney Company located in Ivoryton would respond, but this fire was too large for their limited crew and the Essex department was called in. Unfortunately, the fire caused a total loss of the structure and severely impacted a number of individuals in town: 40 men lost their jobs and damage was estimated upwards of $70,000. Despite this disastrous event it was this fire that marked the beginning of a new age for the Essex Fire Department.
Once the company had moved beyond the initial boundary of the railroad tracks they began to respond to more fires throughout the town. The department began to respond to fires in Centerbrook and, occasionally, in Ivoryton. In 1937 Comstock & Cheney closed their factory in Ivoryton and left the community without fire protection. With the serious threat of fire in their factory Comstock & Cheney has trained and provisioned their own fire department. This department has their own water supply, hoses, hose houses to protect the hoses from the elements and other equipment that was too expensive for the town to provide its own department. Previously it had been this well-trained and incredibly well-funded brigade staffed by Comstock & Cheney employees that had responded to fires in Ivoryton and Centerbrook. To fill this void Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 built House #2 in Ivoryton to provide a location for firefighting equipment to be stored on the west side of town. House #2 or the west side station, as it is known by firefighters who call it home, still stands today to provide quick response to emergencies in Ivoryton.
It was shortly before the transition to covering the entire Town of Essex that the fire department experienced another significant revolution in fire protection: the fire hydrant. In July of 1905 the first fire hydrant became available for use in the Champlin Square area of the Village. By 1928 much of the Village of Essex had fire hydrants and water mains supplied and maintained by the Guilford-Chester Water Company. These hydrants also allowed the department to use their new purchase: a 1925 Mack Pumper. A few years later, in 1932, the department added to their equipment with 1 ½” fire hose that was new to the market. These changes helped to prepare the fire department for the demand protecting the entire town would have on them as well as moving the organization toward the later 20th century.
The post-World War II era lead to more changes in the Essex Fire Department. Following the war numerous additions were built on to the fire house on Prospect Street to allow for more storage, meeting space and supplementary room for equipment. The surplus of military equipment during this period also meant the fire department would gain new apparatus for the town’s protection. This era ushered in the first fire boat, a refurbished military DUWK boat. These boats were designed to be driven directly into the water and helped to save the time of having to launch a traditional boat. When the time came to replace the original the town purchased a second DUWK boat. This DUWK successfully served the town of Essex until the department acquired its first traditional boat in 1978.
Many of the largest changes to Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 came between 1960 and 1990. This thirty-year period saw a drastic shift not only in the types of emergency responses, but the number of responses made by the department. When the department was formed their sole responsibility was to protect the town of Essex from the threat of fire. By the later part of the 20th century not only was the department responding to the traditional fire calls, but they were also responsible for motor vehicle accidents, hazardous materials response and medical emergencies. The increased diversity of the type of calls the department received necessitated a greater variety of equipment than the department had previously owned.
Route 9 as it is known today was completed in 1969. With the addition of a limited access highway the number of motor vehicle accidents and associated vehicle extrications steadily grew. It was in 1969 that the department worked closely with a local resident who privately funded the design and construction of a heavy rescue vehicle. A heavy rescue is a piece of fire apparatus that is not unlike a rolling tool box carrying the necessary equipment to affect the rescue of an individual trapped in various situations such as someone trapped following a motor vehicle accident. These types of rescue vehicles were very rare at the time and the truck served the department until 2000 when it was replaced by the current heavy rescue. To address the vehicle extrications the fire department purchased a Hurst tool in 1977. The tool, power supply and the shear attachment were purchased at a cost of $6800 and it allowed members to provide better emergency care to car accident victims. These original tools have long since retired and today our current heavy rescue, 6-9, carries modern Hurst tools including the newer, significantly lighter version of the “Jaws of Life”.
The 1970s also marked the beginning of the emergency medical movement. In addition to recognizing that early patient care was critical to the survival of patients of motor vehicle accidents and those who suffered from other medical conditions such as heart attacks, strokes and falls, the government also realized it was necessary to have properly trained personal responding to these calls. To meet the needs of the citizens of Essex the fire department petitioned the state to receive the title of “First Responders” for the town. The department was granted the title and was charged with responding to all medical emergencies within town limits. Today these medical calls account for approximately three-quarters of the call volume of the department.
In addition to increased call volume and new technology, the 1970s ushered in two new divisions to the fire department: the women’s auxiliary and the junior department. The women’s auxiliary provided an official way for the wives of Essex’ bravest to contribute to the department. The auxiliary was short lived; however, the junior department remains an integral part of Essex Fire Engine Co No 1. The junior department provides youths age 14 through 17 with training and experience in fire and emergency medicine. Though the number of juniors has varied during its 30 plus year history the dedication, perseverance and enthusiasm of these young men and women has never wavered.
Even with the increased volume of incidents that can be attributed to Route 9 and the addition of medical calls to the routine operation of Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1, no single change can account for the rapid increase in responses other than the advent of 9-1-1. Prior to 9-1-1 each town had their own 7-digit phone number that was designated for emergency calls only. All of the calls for the town of Essex were routed to Richards Answering Service in Deep River. The operator, Lois, would answer all phone calls and then alert firefighters using a radio. Finally, this system came to an end and in November of 1980 Valley Shore Emergency Communications Inc went live dispatching for the majority of fire departments in lower Middlesex County. Valley Shore could be reached by any citizen in need of assistance by dialing the new, nation-wide emergency number: 9-1-1. In 1987 new technology allowed for E-9-1-1 to be introduce. E-9-1-1 uses computers to assist dispatchers in contacting fire departments and other emergency personnel as well as helping to cut down on the lag time associated with the older system. Today’s E-9-1-1 technology incorporates the use of Global Positioning Satellites and more sophisticated computers to allow dispatchers to locate a patient and to help guide emergency personal to the scene. Firefighters no longer need to rely solely on the horns that used to muster them for an emergency. Instead volunteers are issued pagers that will alert them to the nature and location of the emergency. This technology and rapid response times are considered standard today, but would have amazed members from prior generations of Essex’ Bravest.
Turning the page from the 20th to the 21st century was marked by three mammoth changes in firefighting operations in the town of Essex. As new apparatus joined the resources of the fire department a shift in strategy and fire ground operations ensued. One of the most significant changes was the design, construction and purchase of the first Compressed Air Foam System (CAFS) fire engine on the East Coast. Compressed air foam is a firefighting tool that allows for the suppression of vapors and serves as a barrier to prevent oxygen from reaching the fire. 6-5-2, or Engine 2 “the pride of the West Side”, was purchased in 1990 and was the first example of a compressed air foam system being integrated into a piece of fire apparatus. Engine 2 has served as a shining example on the forefront of the fire service and has been used a model for numerous other CAFS equipped trucks across the country. In 1995 the purchase of our first tanker truck, a 1978 International/Saulsbury with a capacity of 1600 gallons of water, put an end to laying out thousands of feet of hose to provide water to a fire. With a tanker the department was able to bring vast quantities of water to the scene and to unload its 1600 gallons in less than a minute. This rapid delivery allows firefighters a surplus of water while the tanker returns to refill. This tanker has since been retired and replaced with Tanker 6-6-3, a 2004 Kenworth/4-Guys 1800 gallon tanker. In 2000 Essex purchased our first aerial apparatus, a 1977 Maxim 85’ light duty mid-mount from Mystic, Connecticut. The ladder truck significantly reduces the time it takes for firefighters to be deployed to rooftops or upper stories of a structure during a fire. This means that firefighters are able to make rapid rescues and quickly ventilate a building. The constant focus on being at the forefront of fire ground technology means that Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 will continue to provide the highest level of protection to the citizens of Essex.
The Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 of today would astonish its predecessors. Today the department responds to over 800 calls for assistance annually. The two fire houses serve as home for 12 different pieces of apparatus not including three fire boats. With a roster of 60 individuals committed to serving their community the department is well-staffed and ready to respond to any emergency. With increasing technology and the ever evolving nature of society it is a given that there will be many additional changes in the science of fighting fire and saving lives and Essex Fire Engine Company Number 1 will continue to be on the forefront of these changes. It is through dedication, community spirit and love of the job that the Essex Fire Engine Company No. 1 has continued to grow and thrive for 185 years and will continue to do so.