A History of the Wethersfield Fire Department
THE HISTORY OF THE WETHERSFIELD VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT
By Captain Richard Fippinger with special thanks to Jared B. Standish and David Kelly who, among many others, have helped write the history of The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department over the years.
There have been many enemies faced by Wethersfield residents since the town’s founding in 1634 as the first town in Connecticut, but none has been more fierce and merciless than one of life’s most sustaining forces . . . fire! It gave heat and sustenance but killed people in their sleep, warmed their food and burned their buildings down.
Controlling fire became a key to survival in the early days. Residents banded together to jointly fight fire when it broke out. Protection from damaging infernos and how to limit their effect on the community became a major topic of discussion when town leaders met.
It still is today.
But the solution is more complicated and elusive. It takes more advanced equipment and trained personnel to fight and control fire today.
When the town was founded in 1634, fire control was relatively simple. Mostly wood burned and mostly water put it out. Water got to the fire in buckets held in the hands of courageous individuals who took independent action or worked jointly together to try to save barns and dwellings. When they failed, the building afflicted burned down, along with many other adjacent buildings.
Today, a tight knit organization of highly trained and well equipped firefighters do the same thing for Wethersfield, even though the materials that burn are more complex, the buildings larger and the modes of transportation move at a greater speeds.
One common thread reaches back in time to the very beginning of town. One single motivation still exists in the minds and hearts of people who fight fire here today. And now people with that motivation, will and desires continue to serve Wethersfield well with the same common force . . .volunteerism.
Today, a volunteer firefighter looks like any firefighter is trained and equipped the same way and is the mirror image of his paid counterpart. They are also held to the same high standards of performance.
In years gone by, volunteers were typified as being willing to abandon bed and family at night, or business or farming during the day, to instantly fight fire whenever it occurred in town.
Today in Wethersfield the same pride, dedication and devotion to duty is still required to maintain active membership. Volunteers are literally steps away from an incident when they leave their bed at home when the alarm sounds at night.
The year 2003 marks the formal 200th Anniversary of the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department. But our firefighting history goes back much further to The First Church in the 1690 when parishioners voted to stockpile ladders and leather buckets in the back of the church and rings the church bell whenever fire threatened. Formal Chimney Viewers were appointed in 1708.
The First Church Society (then known as the First Ecclesiastical Society since it had extended its duties further than managing just the First Church business) initiated the political activity of applying for a state charter. That “Enabling Act” to establish a fire company from the state legislature is where our formal history begins…as the oldest volunteer fire company in continuous existence in Connecticut, and the oldest in New England.
The story of The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department in the last half of the twentieth century is quite
clear and filled with notable fires, diligent firefighters, and overwhelming town support. A full range of stories, colorful personalities and gleaming trucks mix with tales of heroism, large fires and advancing technology to give a clear picture of an organization for all to be proud of.
Even the fires today are different than in the past, they burn with a speed and toxic smoke that can injure or kill more quickly. Cars crash together and into things with merry abandon, pinning passengers and requiring Herculean efforts and very special modern tools to get them out before they are whisked away by helicopter to the hospital roof, only a few short minutes away.
The 911 reporting system, smoke detectors and water sprinkler systems have given business owners and home residents earlier warning, additional time to escape and the fire department more lead time to contain fires that was never available in the past.
Earlier days find the story a bit fuzzier and the people just a bit bigger that life itself. The stark black and white pictures show bearded faces (a big no-no today with facemasks required wearing for every fire), wooden ladders and a semi-rural setting.
The earliest pictures and artifacts show a different world. One filled with Civil War, other wars, the industrial revolution and a slowly growing town that suffered growing pains and fires like all other New England towns.
Farms, barns, the horse and cow, staples in Wethersfield in the mid-1850s have all but disappeared today. Electricity, city water and hydrants, paved roads, telephones, radios and automobiles have all drastically changed how we live.
A visit to the Connecticut State Library will show a copy of the original Wethersfield Fire Company Charter, which was passed in 1803. It has an amazing likeness to the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and other important documents of that time. Visible are the signatures of Colonel John Chester and Ezekiel Belden that were named by The First Church Society to approach the Connecticut Legislature to request the charter. The lettering is all done by hand, as the pictures on the cover and inside this book show.
The first tax exemption to firefighters was also granted in that Charter when volunteers were exempted from the highway tax on the road running from Middletown to Hartford if they responded to fires. It also made possible fines for failure to attend fires.
This book is dedicated to the people who have served in The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department over the last two centuries. Many of their names are known. Some are not.
Department members have taken on a new challenge while beginning their third century of service to Wethersfield. A new Foundation, The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department Memorial and Preservation Trust, Inc. is being formed with the twin goals of building a Firefighters Monument and preserving the heritage of the Department.
This book details the lore and history, as it is presently known. But every day, new facts, figures and artifacts surface which further shed light on the glorious history of the department. They should be preserved for future generations to marvel at and appreciate.
It is intended that the following chapters give some insight to readers as to how the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department came about, what services it has performed and most importantly, the human dedication and commitment which made it all possible.
Our thanks go to the family of Jared B. Standish, who wrote the first history of the Department. It was titled “The Story of Fire Protection In Wethersfield” and first appeared in the Fire Department’s 150th Anniversary booklet of June 1953. That original article, plus information gathered by former department Historian Dave Kelly, Retired Firefighter Michael Smith and the use of past and present records were the foundation of this enlarged history. Bruce McCue and Vanessa Console provided the apparatus update and Frank Strong. Statistician at Company #3 provided invaluable data for the Major Fires section. Additional thanks go to Bob Lecrenier, Committee Chairman who spearheaded the drive to fund the publishing of this book and to the hundreds of Wethersfield citizens and friends who joined the newly established Brass Bell Club.
Finally, a special thanks goes to Asst. Chief Mark Mahder who gave full support and technical assistance and to Jordan Smith, graphic artist who designed the new department logo and is the artist who gave this book its distinctive look.
It is our hope that this book paints a valuable and realistic picture of a fine organization and that a volunteer fire department may be maintained in town for many years to come. It is the desire of many that the experience of being a volunteer firefighter will remain open to anyone who wants to go out and protect their fellow man against the ravages of fire.
- Dick Fippinger, Editor
Chapter 2 The Beginning
The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department was formally chartered by the Connecticut State Legislature at its’ May session in 1803.
But long before that, concerned residents and founding fathers of Connecticut's oldest town banded together to fight one of there most feared enemies other than sickness and Indians...fire!
Since the town's founding in 1634 by the splinter group of Pilgrims who broke away from the Watertown plantation, the First Church has played a dominant role in the development of the town and the protection of it's people.
In those early days church and state were deeply entwined. The church was also the meetinghouse where all things of importance were decided by an organization called the First Church Society.
First Society members, recognizing the danger of fire and that it was a major community problem, voted as early as the 1690 to purchase ladders and hand-tooled leather buckets to be stored in the church to be used in case of fire. A law was passed requiring each property owner to keep a ready fire bucket handy. In 1708 the town fathers appointed chimney viewers to fill the role of fire warden.
In 1797 the town required monthly inspection of private dwellings and chimneys. A Town Watchman was hired at the cost of one dollar a night to patrol the streets in search of fire. But community fire protection really started just twenty-two years after George Washington planned the battle of Yorktown at the Silas Deane House on Main Street and attended a church service at the First Church just across the street.
Present Wethersfield fire department members today know of the many historic homes in town that are older than 200 years, the are tinder dry and can burn very quickly.
Just imagine what it was like to suffer a fast moving fire in closely packed wooden buildings and stores, each with one or more active fireplaces, not only for heat but also for cooking.
In 1801 the First Society appropriated $200 to purchase a hand operated and carried "force pump". This pump, along with leather buckets and hooks and ladders were stored in a building just behind the First Church.
The church bell, which had been installed in the church tower with a clock in 1790, was rung to summon every able bodied man to the scene of a fire.
When the dreaded call"Fire...Fire" rang out, all the homeowners and businessmen in the town would heave their personal leather buckets out into the street where men running by toward the fire would gather them up.
Main and Marsh Street was an original site for the town well and pump. Many times that's where the "bucket brigade" met and formed. Lines of people of all ages snaked from the water source to the burning home, hastily passing full buckets of precious water along to try to contain and extinguish the fire. Much of the water went on the building next door to quell the embers on the adjacent roofs.
There was not much chance for a "good stop" and often it was necessary to pull down the houses on either side of the fire to prevent the destruction of the whole town. That is what hooks were used for and is the true source of the descriptive term "hook and ladder".
Wethersfield had many fine early leaders. One was Colonel John Chester who can truly be called the father of the Wethersfield Fire Department. He was famous for his actions while leading the Connecticut Dragoons of the Continental Army in the historic fight against the British Army at Bunker Hill. He, along with Ezekiel Belden, was called upon by the First Ecclesiastical Society to act as agents to the Connecticut General Assembly to get them to charter a fire company for the town. They were successful when on May 27, 1803 both houses passed a ‘resolve’ creating a fire company for Wethersfield.
That organization today is known as the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department and is considered to be the oldest volunteer fire department in continuous existence in Connecticut, and New England.
Under the direction of Colonel Chester, the Wethersfield Fire Company was formed and commissioned to equip itself with the necessary tools to extinguish fire and to purchase ladders tall enough to reach the roof of the beloved first church. The fire equipment and the town hearse continued to be housed at the First Church.
The original sixteen members were granted an exemption from the then common poll tax (used to defray cost of public elections-Ed). They were also able to use the toll road between Middletown and Hartford for free. But they were required to pay fines to the Fire Company for alarms not answered.
In the period 1700 through 1830, Wethersfield was considerably more than a farm community; it was a bustling business hub. In addition to bountiful crops of red onions and other farm produce, other businesses, such as seed warehouses, dry goods stores andblacksmith shops thrived.
Wethersfield was also a seaport and large amounts of combustible materials were stored in buildings and warehouses at the cove.
Fire continually bedeviled Wethersfield as it grew.
In 1831 and again in 1834, Wethersfield suffered catastrophic fires where whole blocks of buildings burned and the blaze destroyed the center of town. These conflagrations destroyed dozens of buildings and led to the establishment of a revitalized fire company with suitable by-laws for attendance and training.
In 1834 a special act of the State Legislature formally incorporated the "Wethersfield Fire Company". The first foreman of this revitalized fire company was Abraham Skaats and it was said that he led with an iron fist, both at the fires and behind the hall after meetings when he found it necessary.
On October 16, 1858 the first New York style, full-sized, single piano type, hand drawn fire engine, named "The Neptune", arrived in town. It was purchased from the City of Hartford Volunteer Fire Department and had a "goose neck" nozzle mounted on top. Amazingly, according to the records of the time, it took 42 men to pull it to the fire and more to keep it pumping for any length of time.
The tub had to be kept full of water by the willing bucket brigade, and every two minutes, a fresh team of 16 men had to "man the breaks" to keep the water flowing on the fire. "Neptune" could throw water 70 feet in the air and was housed in the First Church chapel garage. It was kept ready for service in the rear basement of the Stillman Conference House, located to the rear of the Chapel of 1872 north of the Congregational Church, next to the Town Hearse.
After fourteen years of service it was retired due to age ... and was rumored to have met it's doom at the hands of reveling firemen in a gala bonfire after they tired of having it take up storage space behind the firehouse.
At the same time the towns’ first "ladder carrier" was ordered by a newly organized group entitled the "One Hope 1 Fire Company" which was organized by a Civil War veteran Lieutenant of the Connecticut 9th Regiment. That man was Edward G. Woodhouse, a noted insurance man with ties to the growing insurance industry in Hartford.
Optimism of the times was reflected in the name "Hope 1". The ladder carrier" was purchased for $125 from the Standish and Dibble carriage makers located on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford.
This historic photo was taken at Main and Marsh Street and shows the four-wheeled combination hook, ladder and bucket carrier.
Its a long way from that rickety device to the present "snorkel" seen standing at the same spot recently. At first, Hope 1 was pulled by men, and later by draft horses. It was housed in a former car barn of the Hartford/Wethersfield Horse Railroad right next to Comstock Ferre Seed Company.
All that remains of that rig is the completely restored "hose gig" which sits proudly, weather permitting, in front of present Company #1 on Main Street. Just a few years back the members of Company #1 took the time to restore it to original condition for us to enjoy as part of the long heritage of the fire department.
Legend has it that this gig is actually the front two wheels and hardware from "Hope 1" which were salvaged and turned into a hose laying cart and competition gig for musters.
Fire Company meetings were held in the Grand Army of the Republic-John Morris Hall. The firemen often donated bags of coal in appreciation for the use of the hall.
Uniforms were purchased then for $3.00 each and were used in parades and musters. Today to fully equip a firefighter for fire action and for a dress uniform costs more than $7,000. The Wethersfield volunteers also boasted of a fine cornet and drum corps that led them in parades and community festivities.
By this time steam railroad engines chugged through town on The Valley Line on the way to Old Saybrook and both telegraph and the newfangled telephone were coming into use.
A public water supply pipe (the forerunner of the Metropolitan District Commission water system) was making its’ way in to town from Hartford. The first paying customer for water was the Connecticut state prison which would play a major role in the development of communications and the sounding of fire alarms in town.
Gas light service was available from the gas company on Wyllis Street in Hartford.
To get around you took the Hartford/Wethersfield Horse Railroad, which ran down Wethersfield Avenue from Hartford to the center of Wethersfield.
The by-laws of Company #1 remain essentially the same today as they did when they were originally written. Of course, modern rules and procedures at the department level have been added. But the intent is virtually the same as it was back then . . . to guarantee attendance at incidents and proper training to fight fires and maintain order on the fireground.
We don't normally pay attention to the bell of the First Church as it tolls the hour, half-hour and quarter hour today. But in years gone by, the bell was an important signal and was rung for holidays, victory at war, and the 9:00 curfew.
Until 1932, the bell was also rung furiously to signal an alarm of fire or emergency. “Josh" Adams, church sexton and fire company member would tug the bell rope. He would dash over to the church from his home on Hartford Avenue to give the alarm.
With the advent of the telephone, when the church bell rang, members could call "central" to get the location of the fire.
Department Fire Chief John McCue pleasantly recalled seeing Company #1 Fire Chief W. W. Savage madly driving his horse drawn buggy between the Old Wethersfield Academy and his Broad Street home to get to Main Street for a fire early in the century.
In 1913 the Wethersfield Fire Company reorganized as "Wethersfield Fire Company #1 and then gavethe foreman the title of chief. Edward G. Woodhouse became Company #1's first chief.
By 1915 small diameter wood water mains, held together with iron straps, had been installed under the authority of the Wethersfield Fire district.
In 1920 Comstock Ferre Seed Company expanded and forced the "One Hope 1" firehouse to be moved to 171 Main Street, the present site of Company #1, adjacent to Hanmer’s Grocery Store.
1921 saw the arrival of a Republic Chemical fire truck and the doors of the firehouse had to be enlarged.
The old "Hope 1" rig was modified and used as a muster piece and the firehouse was enlarged so that meetings and drills could be held there for the first time.
The Wethersfield Fire Department was created in 1925 when Company #2 was established at Griswoldville. An American La France pumper was purchased for $12,000 to reside at Company #1 and the Republic Pumper was transferred to Company #2.
The first Company #2 station was a converted schoolhouse on the West Side of Griswold Road, across from the present firehouse. Again church bells played a part...this time the bell in the Griswoldville chapel was rung for fires.
Henry Francis Hanmer, town postmaster, was appointed the first Chief of the Wethersfield Fire Department.
Also in 1925, Harry Bockus was elected the first Captain of Company #1 and Stanley Wells became the first Captain of Company #2. Sadly, soon after he was to be struck by an automobile and killed on his way to an alarm, becoming the first fatality of the fire department in the line of duty.
The Connecticut State Prison steam whistle was added to the alarm systemand thatwhistle and church bells were actively used until 1932 when air driven fire horns were placed on the roofs of the two firehouses.
Each street or neighborhood was assigned a numerical code which was blown on the horns along with "recall" signifying that a fire was out. Both noon and 6:00 p.m. were marked with two blasts of the horns.
Everyone was curious when the horns blew, so commercial sponsors were found and cards printed up and distributed as a public service to townspeople showing the codes and locations. These cards usually ended up hung in a conspicuous spot in the home, usually tacked behind the cellar door for easy reference. The large master codebook was located at Company #1.
It became a public event when the horns blew, and it was not unusual to see a convoy of private citizens in cars, and a pack of young kids on bikes, tearing along after the fire engines.
When Wethersfield’s Bell Telephone "Central" relocated to Wells Road, west of the Silas Deane Highway, the State Prison "turnkey" answered fire alarm calls and activated the warning horns. A Gamewell clock/ticker punched out the location codes in each firehouse watch room.
After the prison riots in the 1960's, in which the fire department responded to hose down the rioters, fire alarm duty returned to town control. In 1966 home radio sets (Plectrons) were issued that linked the dispatcher to each fireman's home. These radios have evolved into today's pocket pagers, which are carried on each firefighter's belt.
1927 saw the Original Company #1 fire station built for $25,000.
The old Hope 1 firehouse was sold for $90 and moved down Main street where it now sits as the home of the former Red Barn Christmas gift shop on private property.
Samuel W. Morgan became Chief of Department at the retirement of Chief Hanmer in October of 1935.
In time of war people who fight fire step forward to serve their country. Many a Civil War and Spanish American War veteran served in the towns fire companies. World War 1 was the same.
Military service comes naturally to firefighters and during the Second World War, Company #1's service flag, which hung proudly from the firehouse, had 18 hand sewn stars: 17 blue and one gold star for Robert Clark, a member who was killed in action. Other members of his family carry on the firefighting tradition today.
Chief Sam Morgan retired and John F. McCue was named Department Chief in August of 1943.
Flags commemorating service in the Korean war, Viet Nam War and Persian Gulf reside at Company #1's meeting room.
To supplement firefighting forces on the home front during WW II the Fire Auxiliary (now the Fire Cadets) was formed using mostly high school students who were released from classes when the horns sounded. Many of today's members started out in that Auxiliary and sat in the old high school on the Silas Deane Highway hoping for a raging brush fire that would bring a premature close to their school day.
The 1950's saw great change in the Department and the way fire was fought. Short wave radios were placed on all the apparatus and Chiefs' cars. The "portable radio" revolutionized fireground communications.
The men with “iron lungs and wooden ladders" gave way to the self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) wearing firefighter of today. The now familiar yellow bottle on the back of a fire gear wearing firefighter became the norm.
No longer was there a "lung searing" cellar fire that allowed people to enter to blazing basement and prove their courage by breathing hot smoke and gasses and then go out and light up a Lucky Strike cigarette bummed from a fellow fireman.
The Wethersfield Lumber Company was on the Silas Deane Highway, across the street from Hughes Brothers Gas Station, at the corner of Jordan lane. One Friday in May of 1955 it caught fire and became the largest fire in modern Wethersfield history. The entire yard, including thousands of feet of cut boards, wentup in fame and smoke. Hartford and many surrounding towns sent men and equipment and the fire was not knocked down until the following day, resulting in a total loss of buildings and lumber.
In 1957 company #3 was established on Kelleher court off Ridge road in northwest Wethersfield. Charlie Steinmiller, then a member of Company #1 was asked by Chief McCue to start this company. He became their first Captain. Members then wore the distinctive black uniform shirt and pants with gold tie of that era.
In December of 1960, Operation Red Ball, a school fire drill program sponsored by Aetna Casualty was produced and presented in Wethersfield Schools. Fire Marshal Daniel Welton directed the effort. The program featured a Red Ball sign, held by a teacher, indicating a blocked exit. This forced children to take another route to get out of the building.
An old fashioned Fireman’s Muster was held in town in October of 1962 which was later featured in LIFE Magazine with pictures taken by Life photographer Bill Epperidge, who later went on to cover the Viet Nam War and take the famous picture of the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Until 1962, even though Wethersfield started as a "seaport", there were no boats to support operations on the cove or in the Connecticut River. In that year an army surplus DUKW amphibious vehicle called "The Duck" was purchased for $30.00. It saw many years of service. It was a unique craft/truck hybrid since it had both tires and a boat propeller and could navigate on land and water. It was a popular treat to take small children for rides on Wethersfield roads and then to merrily plunge into the cove and continue the ride on the water. It was also used to “drag” for lost river drowning victims.
Increased river use called for more powerful boats and currently a Boston Whaler serves the purpose. Also, a rubber, inflatable "Zodiak" is kept at Company #2.
In 1964 a 100-foot aerial ladder truck was purchased. It was one of the first to be operated by a volunteer department in Connecticut and shortly thereafter the town attained a b-3 insurance rating. This rating saved thousands of dollars in insurance premiums and Wethersfield became the first town in Connecticut served by a fully volunteer department to enjoy such a fine rating.
The 165th Anniversary Parade was held in town on May 5, 1968.
In March of 1969 the Department suffered its’ second line - of -duty death when Engineer Michael Mele was struck by a car and killed in front of Company #2.
Americas' love affair with the automobile blossomed in the late 60's and cars and trucks crashed together more frequently and with great force. Interstate 91 became the scene of many horrific crashes. It took trained, skilled people to get the injured victims out and on the way to the hospital in the “golden hour” (defined as the most opportune time which may lapse and still allow the victim to live with proper medical treatment). Small, powerful tools including the "Hurst tool" were invented to help get victims out quickly. Known as the “Jaws of Life" they enabled rescuers to take the car away from the victim instead of taking the hurt people from the car. This prevented further injury, speeded removal, save many lives and gave birth to a new science...vehicle extrication.
Wethersfield excelled at using "the jaws" and teaching how to use them. The Connecticut State Police purchased a Hurst tool and gave it to Wethersfield, in return for the services of our firemen as instructors in 1974. The fame of "Rescue 8" spread far and wide and a new Mack rescue truck was purchased. this became the model of all heavy rescue trucks that followed and the envy of other firefighters far and wide.
In 1971, the ladies of the Department, who have since the very beginning care for us, baked for us and sat home waiting for our return, formed the Ladies Auxiliary so that they could more formally support the department.
Also in that year John McCue retired as Chief and Albert Knapp was appointed chief.
September 1972 saw Wethersfield host the 89th Connecticut State Firefighters Convention and Parade to honor Clinton L. “Jiggs” Hughes who served that year as president of the State Association. “Jiggs” was appointed Chief of Department on October 31 of that year on the retirement of Chief Albert Knapp.
Hazardous materials and the problems they cause came to Wethersfield well before this type of "spill" gained national attention and press coverage. Deadly ammonia from a broken refrigeration pipe at Teddys' Frosted Food plant on the Silas Deane Highway threatened workers, businesses and residents surrounding the plant in 1973. The space age "proximity suit" plus the air of the Scott Air Pac helped firefighters to shut off the pipe and contain the leak.
Newly re-built Company #1 was occupied by members in June of 1974. The original building adjacent to the new structure was torn down and a parking lot constructed to serve the side-loading building.
The 175th Anniversary Parade was held on Wolcott Hill Road in September 1978.
In April of 1979 more than a dozen firefighters were exposed to chlorine gas and treated at Hartford Hospital following an accidental spill of a large volume of swimming pool chemicals at the Namco store and warehouse on the Silas Deane Highway. It was the departments' second major HazMat incident and brought out then Governor Ella Grasso, other state officials and gained Wethersfield national media exposure.
A new UHF Radio system (frequency 460.250) was put in service in June 1982.
The Wethersfield Firefighters’ Pension Bill was approved by the Connecticut State Legislature in April of 1986 and signed into law by then Gov. William O’Neill on January 27, 1987. In October of that year the 911 emergency phone number was placed in operation.
An addition was constructed at Company #3 in late 1987 in which a new bay (in anticipation of a new aerial tower truck) and extensive meeting rooms were added to the original building. An Emergency Command Center was created there.
April 7, 1991 saw the Department send a group of trucks, uniformed firefighters, wives, children, the high school band, Colonel John Chester Fife & Drum Corps and town dignitaries to Westover Air Force Base to honor troops freshly back from Persian Gulf/ Operation Desert Storm.
During that year Chief Clinton Hughes retired and John McAuliffe was named Chief.
Wethersfield also became a leader in ice rescue in the 1990’s and bought cold water rescue suits and drilled in them by chopping holes in the ice each winter at Murphy’s pound.
That training paid off in the winter of 1993 when firefighters in these suits help pull a teen-aged skater from certain death from a hole in the ice at the Old Reservoir.
The Connecticut State Fire Convention returned to Wethersfield in September of 1994 and Chief John McAuliffe served as state President that year.
The decade of the 1990’s saw much change in the way the Department trained and fought fires.
The advent of firefighter certification on the national scene caused great change in the way training was conducted at the local and state levels.
For example, during the fiscal year 1995/1996 over 6,500 work-hours of training took place. Wethersfield firefighters attended the Connecticut Fire Academy, Pennsylvania Fire Academy and State Office of Emergency Management and Industrial Risk Insurers courses in addition to their local training activities.
The training was diversified including Firefighter 1 & II, Applied Rescue Techniques, Hazardous Materials Mitigation and Incident Command Procedures.
It became a requirement that a probationary member pass Firefighter I Certification prior to becoming a full member of the department.
In that same year the department responded to 574 alarms. Annual average fire loss over the past five years was approximately $450,000.
The First Annual Awards Program was introduced and a Firefighter’s Recognition Day was held to honor acts of exceptional courage and performance of duty.
In 1996 funding was received from the Connecticut DOT for the installation of a traffic light control system (Opticom) for Route 3 and the Silas Deane Highway traffic lights. When activated it allowed free and clear response by emergency vehicles along those routes by activating a control switch in the cab of the responding vehicle. Over the next few years the system was expanded to include the Berlin Turnpike and other parts of town.
Thomas Watson was appointed Fire Chief that year on the retirement of John McAuliffe. Fire Cadets were actively integrated into probationary member training and became a primary recruiting source for the active department.
The official Department newsletter, entitled The Neptune, was first published.
1997 saw a Sutphen 6 man tilt cab 100’ high rail aerial platform with a 1500 GPM pump placed into service at Company #3 to replace the 1963 American LaFrance 100 ‘ aerial ladder truck.
At the 1998 Connecticut State Firefighters Convention the new Truck #32 was judged to be the “Best Aerial Tower in Connecticut”. The honor was repeated again in 2000. This was not the first time that statewide honors were brought upon Wethersfield fire apparatus. Back in 1965 the original Truck #32 was judged “Best in State” followed by the same honor being bestowed upon the Mack Rescue Truck in 1977.
OSHA (Office of Safety and Health Administration) and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) mandated new requirements of firefighter gear and each of our people was shortly thereafter equipped with “OSHA Approved” coat, helmet, boots, hoods and turnout pants. It then became a Department requirement that “full turnout gear” be worn at all times while riding on department first line apparatus.
A study was undertaken to improve the firefighters Length of Service Awards (Pension) Program. In 1998 Town Council upgraded the program with the expressed purpose of recruiting new firefighters and keeping Wethersfield totally volunteer.
During that period it was realized that Wethersfield could not be protected totally by assets held in town. Significant interest in mutual aid planning and regional cooperation among surrounding town departments and other federal, state and local agencies grew and open discussion were held among all parties. This led to the beginnings of regional cooperation between branches of the emergency services.
In addition to the fifteen vehicles, two boats and three firehouses housed in town, inter- town agreements were strengthened with surrounding towns in which unique fire equipment (Confined Space Rescue) and manpower to supplement major firefighting efforts were made available when the “big one” struck town.
During that time period a trend developed which changed the face of the Department. The average age of active members drifted downward as many more young people joined and middle year members left active duty due to the press of second jobs and growing families. It became more expensive to buy a starter home in Wethersfield so active members who had been fully trained were lost because of housing needs that could not be met in town.
Among the younger generation interest waned because of the pressure of economic needs and lack of time.
Recruiting and retention became major management issues and aggressive and forceful programs were undertaken to restock the diminishing department ranks and keep the experienced members “in service”.
An unexpected shot in the arm for that effort was gotten in July 1999 when the Connecticut Legislature passed an bill allowing a tax exemption of up to $1,000 that could be granted by each town for volunteer fire and EMS members. The Wethersfield Town Council granted that exemption shortly there after and the combination of the pension plan plus the exemption has made it more attractive for previous members to rejoin and interested parties to seek out membership in the department. Since then the major management effort has been to actively recruit and retain members to keep Wethersfield volunteer.
Chief Thomas Watson retired in May 1999 and Theodore H. Schroll, Jr. became Acting Chief of the Department.
Four personal computers were purchased which indicated the growth of paperwork and administrative time required to run the Department.
The Department Web Site (www.wvfd.org) was formally established and began to carry our recruiting message to Internet users. A few inquiries from interested people were generated right away and it is hoped that this tool will continue to be effective in the future.
William R. Clark was appointed Acting Chief of the Department on June 30, 1999 upon the retirement of Acting Chief Theodore H. Schroll, Jr. Chief Clarks appointment was made permanent a few months later by the Town Council.
In 2000 a Sparten/Saulsbury 8 man heavy duty rescue truck with a built in Hurst system, cascade system and light tower was placed into service at Company #2 to replace the 1977 Mack rescue vehicle.
The Smoke Detector has had great impact over the last decade in giving quicker warning and more time to combat fire. Early detection gave inhabitants earlier warning and more time to escape thereby cutting down greatly on the number of “surprise fires” which trap occupants and create high value fire losses. Internal sprinkler systems help greatly to cut the exposure to damaging fires. Due to an enlightened sprinkler ordinance, aggressive public programs by both the Department and Fire Marshal’s office and almost universal acceptance of the value of smoke detectors, has cut down on losses and lives lost to fires.
Following in the footsteps of the smoke detector device, is another detector, which alerts people to the presence of the gas (carbon monoxide). That killer gas is a by-product of combustion and is silent, colorless and odorless. Public acceptance of this new device has resulted in many additional calls due to malfunctions in heating systems and other related problems.
In 2000 a study was undertaken of the effectiveness of the Department’s radio which resulted in a decision to participate in the town’s new 800 MHZ radio system.
Thermal Imaging Cameras have recently became the most widely accepted rescue tool for firefighters. A newly developed scientific advance, it allows special hand held cameras to differentiate between the temperatures of humans, objects and things. It has allowed the camera to project images of those different temperatures on a t v like screen. With the camera in hand, firefighters can“see the object” through the smoke that would normally obscure their vision.
The Wethersfield Department now has a many of these cameras. One is in service on each primary engine in each company. The Rescue Truck has them and more reside on the Command and Chief’s duty vehicles. In addition to finding victims in fires and collapse situations, these cameras are very valuable in locating and rescuing firefighters who become trapped while performing fire-fighting duties.
Special efforts are being made on an ongoing basis to strengthen the newly activated Fire Safety Officer program so that we continue to “protect our own” as well as others.
On the public front, the Department began a continuing program entitled “Pride and Performance” in 1999. In it the Department members perform their skills for the general public and open the firehouse doors to show equipment and talents to interested taxpayers and their children. Over the past few years, two major events have been held for the public and firehouse doors are always open to interested parties. The department takes part in the Special Olympics, the Corn Festival, Wethersfield Weekend, and all other public events that take place in town.
A special program by the Recruiting Officer has targeted neighborhood parties and a special effort is made by the Department each year to participate in “Prom Promise”, a high school student focusedprogram which is intended to deter seniors from drinking alcohol during prom night.
Never a warm day goes by without the firehouse doors being open and mothers and children walking in and out to admire the fine equipment and to hear about firefighting from dedicated firefighters.
In 2001 formal planning began for the 200th Birthday Celebration in 2003. The reservation was formalized guaranteeing that the 2003 Connecticut State Firefighters Convention would be held in Wethersfield. Simultaneously planning continued for the purchase of a Rescue/Pumper to replace Engine # 11at Company #1. Delivery is scheduled for May of 2003, just in time for the anniversary celebration.
The graphic image of the Department was also upgraded. A new formal department logo was drawn up and the dress uniform shoulder patch was redesigned to feature the image of the Neptune and to show our claim to be “The Oldest Volunteer Fire Department in New England in Continuous Existence”.
A new Ford Excursion 4-wheel drive sport utility vehicle was placed in service as the command/duty vehicle. It is equipped with a command module, fire extinguishers, breathing apparatus, cell telephones and radios. It is now used as a central command post during large incidents and for duty officer response.
Also a retro fitted Ford Cube Ambulance was placed into service as a rehabilitation unit.
The addition of both these vehicles, plus the intensified involvement of The Wethersfield Volunteer Ambulance in the “re-hab” function have strengthened the command and control procedures for fighting fires by the department. Plans are presently being laid down to formalize further improved medical procedures and to weave in coordination of these vehicles and the emergency command post at Firehouse #3 in case of disaster or extended operations.
At the same time a Recruitment, Education and Safety Trailer was purchased by a $35,000 behest from the Arthur Griswold family. The trailer is used during public events and is equipped to generate a harmless smoke vapor, which is used to expose and teach children how to escape from a burning bedroom. By offering joint use to the Fire Marshal, the trailer has strengthened the effectiveness of the ongoing school awareness program.
Mutual aid conferences with Rocky Hill, Glastonbury, Newington, Cromwell and Berlin have resulted in the formation in 2002 of strengthened mutual aid responses including the formation of two Hartford County wide task forces which will respond to larger incidents. Truck #32 from Wethersfield and the Re/Hab unit is presently part of one of the task forces.
During the fiscal year 2001-2002 the Department increased its’ membership by 14 active members. The department has grown back to more than 90 active members due to successful recruiting and retention efforts.
A recent Awards Night honored 24 members for a combined total of more than 525 years of volunteer service to Wethersfield. Using that figure as a yardstick, and figuring averages based on the present size of the Department it is possible that active members alone represent more than 1,600 years of individual volunteer service to the town. Obviously it would be impossible to generate that figure for all volunteer firefighters over the past 200 years, but just let your mind wander over the figures that could be developed.
Today, a fleet of eighteen vehicles and two boats more than fill three firehouses.
Training hours have grown annually too more than 7,700 individual hours. Many members are becoming certified as Medical Response Technicians (MRT). Additional training is WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) equipment and procedures have been added to our training requirements.
In the fall of 2002, a radio tower reaching the height of 180 feet was erected at Company #3 to facilitate the start up of the new 800 MHZ radio system.
In 2003, the department took delivery of a Sutphen Rescue Pumper (Engine 11) which is now housed at Company One. This engine has a 1,950 gallon water tank, generator, foam and Hurst tools aboard.
In the spring of 2005, Charles Flynn was appointed Chief of Department and served until September of 2012 when he became the Chief of the Suffield CT Fire Department. Assistant Chief Rich Bailey was appointed to Chief of the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department and his staff includes Assistant Chief Mark Guerrera and Deputy Chiefs Brian Schroll and Art Abronzino.
In November of 2013, the permanent memorial was erected and dedicated to Wethersfield's Past, Present and Future Firefighters. The concept for this memorial was developed during the planning of the 200th Anniversary in 2003 and granite memorial which was designed by a committee of WFD members features a bell and helmet along with engraved panels detailing our history and honoring those who died in the Line Of Duty.
Keeping our fleet of apparatus current and capable of serving out towns needs is an ongoing priority for the Department. In November of 2014, Company 2 took possession of a new Sutphen Quint. The truck replaces a 1989 American La France ladder truck that has served the South end of town for 25 years. Known as Truck 22, along with it's 75 ft aerial ladder, it carries a full complement of ground ladders and hose as well as 300 gallons of water to supply it's fire pump.
In the fall of 2017 Joe Martelle and Bob Keleher were appointed as Deputy Chiefs to fill the positions opened by the retirement of Deputy Chief Art Abronzino and Brian Schroll. In 2017, the department responded to 517 incidents, ranging from structure fires, fire alarms, motor vehicle accidents and many other type of calls for assistance.
Over the past two centuries, brave and motivated people have been willing to fight fire and perform rescues for the people of Wethersfield.
Today we enjoy one of the finest, best-equipped and well-trained volunteer fire departments in the nation. Our Firefighters train more than 200 hours in an average year, spend more than twice that much drilling and fighting fires and are "on call" twenty four hours a day. It is not really known how much their dedication and service is really worth to taxpayers, but you can bet it's plenty!
Well, that's the story of almost two centuries of proud tradition, heritage, pride and firefighting performance. And that wonderful tradition continues today thanks to the people serving with us presently. Nobody can really tell how many people have served the Department...the number of lives saved and helped or the homes and possessions that have been conserved down through the years.
Volunteer firefighting is dedication, fellowship, sacrifice and lot's of hard work...all for the love of it.
Appointed Fire Chiefs of the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department
H. Francis Hanmer - March 1925 - October 1935
Samuel W. Morgan - October 1935 - August 1943
John F. McCue - August 1943 - March 1971
Albert L. Knapp - March 1971 - October 1972
Clinton L. Hughes - October 1972 - November 1991
John J.McAuliffe - November 1991- December 1996
Thomas P. Watson - December 1996 - 1999
William R. Clark - November 1999 - 2005
Charles Flynn - June 2005 - September 2012
Rich Bailey - September 2012 to present