Michael J. Lavoie
The first recorded fire in Worcester's history occurred on December 2, 1675, when all the houses in Quinsigamond were burned to the ground by the Nipmuc Indians. No lives were lost as the settlement had been abandoned earlier as a precaution against Indian attack. A permanent settlement was finally established in 1713. Unlike other larger towns of the times, Worcester experienced few large fires. It was sparsely populated and the occasional shop or house fire that did occur was usually self-contained. Fire fighting in 18th century Worcester was trying to salvage as much property as possible before allowing the building to burn.
As early as the mid-18th century, fire prevention was on the minds of the people of Worcester. In October 1757 five men were appointed to check all the chimneys in the town. They reported that the chimneys could all be repaired at a small price so as to secure the houses from fire. At the time, defective chimneys were the leading cause of fires in Worcester. In 1790 men appointed as firewards patrolled the town's streets at night and were instructed to sound the alarm if a fire was discovered. These positions continued into the early 19th century.
The first attempt to purchase a fire engine was made in 1786. Ten residents of Worcester petitioned the town to appoint a committee to determine the cost. However, this motion was defeated. Worcester finally obtained it's first fire engine in 1793 and the Worcester Fire Society was founded expressly to fight fires. By 1828 Worcester had four engine companies comprised of volunteers whose duties included responding to the firehouse, getting the engine to the fire, manning the engine at the scene, and returning to the firehouse when the fire was out. The care of the engine was the responsibility of the foreman, who was chosen annually.
By 1835 the town had six engine companies. On February 25, 1835, the Worcester Fire Department was officially established by an act of the state legislature. In May of 1835 the Board of Selectmen appointed the first Board of Engineers for the Fire Department. The Fire Engineers were also responsible for selecting the engine men and the stewards to care for the apparatus. With the establishment of the Fire Department, the efforts of the volunteers were channeled into the Fire Department, which was directly under the control of the town government. The Fire Engineers now had the power to appoint men to man the engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies as the need arose. Although these firemen were not full time and had other means of livelihood, Worcester was one of the first towns in the country to pay its firefighters.
By 1843 Worcester had purchased four of the newer suction companies which were able to draft water from nearby water sources. In 1850, when several of the older pieces of equipment needed to be replaced, the department purchased two new suction engines and had the third repaired. The same year the city also purchased two new hose wagons from Albert Tolman, a local carriage maker with whom they continued to do business until the 1870's.
In 1859 the department began its conversion to steam engines. At this time, the Worcester Fire Department consisted of 220 men manning 5 engine companies, 30 men manning 3 hose wagons, and 50 men manning 2 hook and ladders. The foremen of the companies were paid an extra 10 dollars a year for their added responsibilities.
In 1867, in order to pull its new steam engines, Worcester began to acquire its first horse. Up until that time, horses had been hired to pull the wagons as the need arose. The drivers of the steam engines were the first full time members of the Department and were charged with training and caring for the animals and keeping them ready for duty in case of a fire. The number of horses owned by the Department went from a high of 87 in 1911 to 1 in 1926. The final horse was retired in 1932.
*It was during this time period that Worcester became famous. The first brass sliding pole used in the country was in the city of Worcester in 1880. The wooden pole was invented by Chicago fireman David Kenyon in 1878, however the first brass pole appeared in Worcester.
During this period the first fire fatalities were recorded in the city. On May 16, 1884, a fire destroyed the Packachoag Mills in South Worcester resulting in a loss of 181,000 dollars. During this fire, one boy was killed becoming the first fire death in the city. On April 12, 1895 the Kinnicutt block at 418-422 Main St. burned resulting in $72,000 dollars in damage. In this blaze, two firefighters, William L. McLaughlin and Frank B. Jones, were killed becoming the first Worcester firefighters to lose their lives in the line of duty.
In 1875, In order to benefit the insurance companies doing business within the city, the Worcester Fire Patrol was established by an act of the State legislature. As an auxiliary of the fire department, the patrol members were under the command of the chief while working at fires. The patrol's main function at the fire was to salvage as much property from fire and water as possible. Upon their arrival, patrol's main duty was to open up windows and doors to allow the heat and smoke out of the building and to cover as much property as they could as they went along. They would spread salvage covers on the floor below the fire in such a way as to catch the water from the floor above and channel it out of the building.
The patrol was sustained each year by assessing the insurance companies 2% of their premiums. It wasn't until 1900 that the city began to contribute funds to the patrols to ease the burden on insurance companies. The reason for this decision was that at that time, many households did not carry insurance but were receiving the services of the patrol. In 1958, the fire patrol was faced with an ultimatum from the insurance companies to cease operation. After having served the city of Worcester for 84 years, their duties were taken over by the Fire Department and on April 23, 1962, the fire patrol was officially disbanded.
Shortly after Deputy Chief W.N. Avery was sent to New York City in 1907 to study the training methods used by the FDNY, training for firefighters in Worcester began. Before 1907, training in the department had consisted of on the job training. Upon his return from New York City, Deputy Chief Avery established a training course for the department which included the proper way of raising and moving ladders, rescuing people over ladders, and the use of the safety net. Also included in the training program were lessons in knot tying, coupling and uncoupling hose lines.
By 1910 the W.F.D. moved toward the complete motorization of its equipment. In that year the Department put into service a Thomas "Flyer" automobile and a Pope-Hartford automobile hose wagon. Motorization continued at a rapid pace and in 1925 the last steam fire engine, Engine Co. 3 stationed on School St. was retired. By 1935 the W.F.D. consisted of 10 engine companies, 10 ladder companies and 10 hose wagons.
Also around this time the Department changed to a two-platoon system for firefighters. On February 2, 1920, the Board of Engineers adopted the two-platoon system in which firefighters would work three day tours from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and then would work three night tours from 6:00 PM to 8:00 AM. With the inauguration of this system the need for call men was eliminated and all firefighters became full time employees.
*The American Firehouse, R. Zurier