History of the Gainesville Fire Department

History of Gainesville Fire Department

According to historical documents obtained from library archives, newspaper articles, station log books, alarm reports, council minutes and a historical summary written in 1976 by former Gainesville Times staff  writer Debby Prince, the present Gainesville Fire Department grew out of a volunteer company formed over 130 years ago and was known as the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Company. The City of Gainesville apparently had no organized fire suppression service for the first 54 years following its incorporation in 1821.

Ms. Prince cites that in December 1851 Gainesville was practically destroyed by fire, according to reports, but it was not until over 20 years later that there was any report of an organized fire fighting unit being formed.

However, on February 18, 1876 the Gainesville Eagle reported that a “committee from the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Company notified the (City) Council of its organization and the election of officers; and asked the Council for equipment for service. Alderman Banks moved that the thanks of the Council, in behalf of the citizens, be tendered to the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Company for its organization.”

In the report of Mayor D.G. Candler in 1876 of the Council minutes, it was stated that $484.14 had been expended for the purchase of firefighting equipment.

In 1878, a house was rented from Thomas Wilson at the fee of five dollars a month to house the volunteer fire company and then later the unit was housed in a downtown livery stable. Also during that year, the newly purchased equipment required repair work at the cost of 60 cents, according to the City Council records.

The first organized social activity of the Hook & Ladder Company was a picnic held May 4, 1878 at New Holland featuring music, dancing, ten pins, and billiards. It began a tradition that was to continue for several years and eventually became the Fireman’s Ball which is no longer held. By the following year, the picnic was so popular that the entire town was invited to join the procession going from the square to Stringer’s Ford on the Chattahoochee River four miles north of town. “The Library Association, the Sunday Schools and visitors in the city are especially invited,” an invitation in the weekly newspaper stated.

The first funeral for a company member also occurred in 1878, Charles Bradley, son of Mayor Bradley, died of Typhoid Fever. “The coffin was borne to the cemetery on the truck of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (of which he had been a member).”

City historical records indicate that three years after its organization, the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Company had its “Baptism in Fire” when five of the best business houses of our city burned, including several law offices and valuable libraries. This fire started about 3:00 AM on January 8, 1879, in the building known as the Candler-Henderson Building located on the north side of the square. It housed two stories, five or six law offices, the printing offices of the North Georgian, a tailor shop, and a sleeping room.

According to the Gainesville Eagle report, “Very soon after the alarm, the fire had made such headway that it was impossible to stay its progress with the inefficient apparatus of our fire company. The most that could be done was to endeavor to save some of the goods in the adjoining stores, and keep it from burning the whole block of buildings.” A heavy rain described as providential soon set in, however, keeping adjoining buildings wet and flooding City streets “thus supplying to the active firemen assistance that they could get from no other source.” Nonetheless, the Hook and Ladder Company were described as gallant, heroic, and persevering in their fight against the fire. The Gainesville Eagle also stated that the fire “certainly shows that we need some better fire apparatus than the little hook and ladder wagon now in use. We shall always believe that if they had had a steam fire engine, that the fire would have been stopped in the store of Mr. Johnson.” History shows that the Hook and Ladder Company never did have a fire steam engine. On January 20, 1879, Council meeting minutes state Alderman Bradley presented a resolution that the Mayor and Council proceed at once to take speedy steps to secure a good fire engine, dig cisterns and organize an efficient fire department in our city at a reasonable cost as possible.

In February 1879, the Gainesville Eagle reported that the Council had negotiated a deal with the City of Barnesville to purchase a hand engine. In anticipation of the arrival of the engine a meeting was held to reorganize the company under the name of “Protection Fire Company No. 1”.

Also in February 1879, the Council minute’s state that the Hook and Ladder Company be turned over to a complement of 15 colored men.

With both of these Company’s in place, the City of Gainesville now had a complement of an Engine Company and a Ladder Company.

In February 1886, representative of Protection Engine Company No. 1, D.E. Evans, appeared before the Council to ask for a new steam fire engine. A petition from the Queen City Steam Fire Engine Company No. 2 asking for the new engine was read. Later that month, it was decided to accept a new Silsby steam fire engine. Later in the same year, 1,000 feet of hose for the steam engine was purchased from B.F. Goodrich & Company and one hose cart.

By 1888, the Fire Department consisted of three companies; the Hook and Ladder Company, Fire Protection Company No.1 and the Queen City Steam Fire Engine Company No. 2 with a total of 85 men according to Chamber minutes and the Mayor’s Annual Report of January 1888.

In 1899, the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Company moved into their new home, the newly built City Hall centered on the corner of South Main and West Broad Streets. A 600 pound fire bell was hung in the frame atop the new structure, and it sounded an alarm every time there was a fire. Records show that in 1899 Gainesville had yet another major fire. It began in the building that was owned by Mr. Prior and Mr. Mundy, and was located on the corner of Broad and Bradford Streets. This fire damaged or destroyed a total of eight businesses; of which included an ice plant, warehouse, marble works, a produce store, blacksmith shop, and three additional unidentified buildings.

By 1902, newspaper stories referred to the firefighters as “the Gainesville Fire Department”. According to the Gainesville Eagle, “The Gainesville Fire Department now practices every Friday afternoon, and the citizens are warned to keep at a safe distance, and to have their vehicles out of the way of the fire wagon on that particular afternoon.”

Between 1902 and 1903, Gainesville Fire Department became a career all paid fire department. Gainesville’s first paid fire chief assumed his duties in 1903. He was R. Henry Smith, the son of Gainesville’s first Mayor, William Pugh Smith, and the father of Paul Smith who founded Paul Smith Cleaners. When Ms. Prince wrote her history in 1976, Paul Smith told her that his father was known as an expert with horses. Smith kept two horses, Dan and Henry, and could get them hooked up to the fire wagon and the wagon out of the station in the same amount of time it would take a fireman now to crank up a truck. There were harnesses in the station mounted with weights and pulleys. They could be pulled down and the collars snapped on the horses in just a few seconds, and the horses, too, would be ready. Smith said, “they could tell when the phone rang whether it was a fire or not.”

In the earliest days of the paid fire department there were four men working. They stayed at City Hall on duty six days a week, 21 hours a day, with one hour off for each meal. Each man had one day and one night off each week, and a 15 day vacation once a year. Salaries were $90.00 a month for the chief and $75.00 to $80.00 a month for the firemen.

The Gainesville News reported on December 6, 1911 that Gainesville had the most disastrous fire in its history. The flames originated in the Palmour Hardware Company store. The fire escalated after an explosion in the rear of Charles Castleberry’s store. The article stated that a firewall between the First National Bank building and Allen Brothers store is largely responsible for checking the fire. The firemen battled the blaze all night long with water supplied from a connection made with the Gainesville Cotton Mill’s water supply. Along with Palmour Hardware Company and Castleberry’s, other businesses such as Jack’s Sacks and First National Bank were damaged and Allen Brothers, M.C. Browns, Newman-Frierson-McEver, Arlington Hotel and the State Bank were endangered.   Total loss from the fire was reported at $175,000.00.

The City purchased their first motorized fire truck in 1916. The new fire truck was a 110 horsepower 6-cylinder American LaFrance Engine and was equipped with an 800 gallon per minute pump, 1500 feet of fire hose, ladders, axes, crowbars along with a chemical tank and chemical hose. The total cost of the truck was $9,000 and was said the purchase of this new engine would reduce insurance rates for the citizens.

In 1916, R. Henry Smith, who as Chief was also driver, was replaced for a short time as driver by a soft drink truck driver named Irvin Ledford, father of Roy Ledford who later became the Assistant Fire Chief in the 1970’s. Chief Smith was succeeded by Chief Bartow Parks.   In 1917, under the direction of Chief Parks the Gainesville Fire Department assisted the City of Atlanta Fire Department in fighting four large fires that (according to a news article in the Gainesville News) rendered thousands homeless and millions of dollars of property was lost. Fire departments from numerous cities rushed to Atlanta on special trains; along with them was Chief Parks, a complement of firemen and the American LaFrance engine. The Atlanta firemen, who were dynamiting homes to prevent the fire from spreading, had asked for assistance. According to both Paul Smith and Roy Ledford, their fathers participated in loading the American LaFrance pumper onto a railroad flatcar and traveled to Atlanta. Chief Parks was succeeded by Chief Bud Smith in 1922.

In her history of the Gainesville Fire Department, Debby Prince wrote that many Gainesville firemen barely escaped death when “one of the biggest fires ever to hit Gainesville” blazed up April 19, 1925. On that day the old Hunt Opera House on the corner of East Washington and North Bradford Streets burned to the ground and also destroyed two-thirds of the buildings on the block. Firemen from several nearby towns including Atlanta, Buford, Cornelia and Winder were called to assist in fighting the fire in which many men were almost trapped by falling walls.

In 1927, the City of Gainesville purchased an American LaFrance fire truck. It was the second engine the City had purchased from American LaFrance and it carried a 750 gallon per minute pump. It became know as “Leapin’ Lena” and is still owned by the Gainesville Fire Department today.

In 1928, Chief Bud Smith was succeeded by Chief Jimmy Cain. Chief Cain came to Gainesville from Atlanta and is the man who first introduced fire drills into the city schools. An article in the Gainesville News on September 11, 1928 stated that “a system of fire drills were to be inaugurated immediately!” In the same year the fire department answered 69 calls for service and reported a fire loss of $28,133.25.

In 1936, Henry Smith was once again named Chief of the department and Jimmy Cain stayed with the department as a fireman. The notorious 1936 tornado not only caused fires throughout the city, but also created hardships for the firemen by tearing up water pipes. Historical records show that at one time, a pants factory, Pruitt-Barrett Hardware Company located in a five-story building, and Jack Sacks were going “full blast”, with the firemen having less than 20 pounds of water pressure with which to fight the fires. The tornado also destroyed City Hall which housed the fire department, and carried the fire bell across the street, dropping it through the roof of another building. As a result of the damage caused by the tornado, the Gainesville Fire Department got a new home in the late 1930’s. The new station better known as “Green Street Station” was located on Green Street across from the newly built City Hall and served as the department’s nerve center for over 40 years.

In 1939, Jimmy Cain once again was named Chief of the department, replacing R. Henry Smith.

In 1942, during the time that the department was located at the Green Street Station, R.E. “Sparky” Spence was named Chief of the department. At the age of 30 years old, Chief Spence was the youngest Chief in the history of the department. Newspaper articles state that the week of Chief Spence’s appointment the fire department “answered five alarms with one alarm that received $35.00 in damages by flames.” It was during his tenure in 1954 that Fire Station #2 was built on Holly Drive. During the almost 40 years in the Green Street headquarters, the Gainesville firemen were called time after time to large fires in the downtown area that threatened entire business blocks. Two such fires were the First Baptist Church fire in February 1960 which was believed to be caused by an arsonist and destroyed the church; and the Poultry Enterprises processing plant fire in 1967, which put over 400 people out of work, despite the department’s commitment of a ladder truck, four pumpers and a rescue unit; and at which the Salvation Army set up a food line to serve over 40 personnel involved in the battle. Chief Spence remained with the department until his death in 1967 and is to date the longest serving Chief with 25 years. Upon the death of Chief Spence, John Phillips was appointed Chief in a called emergency meeting by the Gainesville City Council on a Saturday. Chief Phillips remained Chief until 1971.

On November 4, 1971, Verner “Sug” Hamrick was appointed Chief of the department. Chief Hamrick, who joined the department on January 1, 1947, served the department for 44 years with over 20 years as Chief. In 1975, he moved the department into the new Public Safety Building at 118 Jesse Jewell Parkway and led the department to become one of Georgia’s first “Certified” fire departments under the new program in 1977. Chief Hamrick began to prepare the department for future growth in Gainesville and began the push for what would become the third fire station for Gainesville to be located on Nancy Creek Road right off of Thompson Bridge Road. Upon his retirement in 1991, Chief Hamrick had served as the second longest serving Chief to date in the history of the Gainesville Fire Department.

In 1991, Chief Hamrick’s successor, A.B. Sailors, was appointed Chief and retired from the fire service later that same year. Chief Sailors also served as the Chairman of the Georgia Firefighters Pension Board for several years during his tenure and was instrumental in preparing for Fire Station #3. Chief Sailors joined the fire department in 1957, serving for 34 years.

In 1991, Chief David Chapman succeeded Chief Sailors as Fire Chief. Chief Chapman had served as the Fire Marshal for 17 years prior to his appointment to Chief. During Chief Chapman’s tenure the department experienced several changes. Fire Station #3 began construction and was completed. With the new fire station, twelve new personnel were hired in 1993. Chief Chapman implemented pre-hire physicals for all new firefighters and new training standards. Also under his leadership, the Gainesville Fire Department obtained an ISO Class 2 rating.

The History of ISO – Insurance Service Office

In the early 1900’s, the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU) expanded its scope to promote fire protection and public fire protection by developing the Municipal Inspection and Grading System. This fire protection grading system eventually evolved into what is known today as the Insurance Service Office (ISO) in 1971. These agencies have graded fire departments and their service areas for insurance underwriters since their inception. The current rating system considers three major elements; the fire department itself, coverage and response, the procedure and technology for receiving and handling fire alarms, and the water supply available in the rated area. The rating system is graded on a scale from 1 to 10; with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst.

Gainesville was first surveyed on July 19, 1921. It received a Class 7 rating at that time, and retained this rating in 1926, 1928, 1935, and 1939. A September 1, 1942 survey resulted in an upgrade to a Class 6 rating; this rating was retained in 1947, 1949, and 1953. The City moved up to a Class 5 rating on January 15, 1958, and retained this rating in 1963, and 1967. A Class 4 rating was achieved in April of 1979, and retained in March of 1986.

In 1992, Debbie Truelove was hired as Administrative Secretary to the Fire Chief. In 1997, she became the first female from Gainesville Fire Department to attend the Georgia Fire Academy Module 1 Course. Later in 1997, she moved into the position of Technical Services Officer. In 2000, Debbie became the Department Support Services Commander.

In September 1994, Gainesville Fire Department obtained an ISO Class 2 rating. This rating put Gainesville in a class with only four other Georgia cities. Atlanta achieved a Class 2 rating in 1974, Decatur in 1982 and Augusta and Savannah in 1990. To date, the City of Macon is the only Class 1 department in the state of Georgia.

The City Manager‘s report to the Council on the accomplished and anticipated ISO rating upgrades cited such future goals for the department as continued improvements in personnel training -  including a comprehensive training facility, possibly developed and used as a joint venture with other agencies; continuation of such ongoing public water supply improvements as the overlaying of smaller mains and the upgrading of hydrants; similar improvements in on-site systems of large commercial and industrial facilities; continuing refinements in life safety and fire prevention codes and re-inspection programs; larger capability aerial apparatus to respond to fires in office towers, high rise apartments, commercial buildings over 100,000 square feet in area, and all types and sizes of industrial facilities; and the maintenance of ISO service radius requirements of 1.5 miles for engine companies and 2.5 miles for aerial companies in the distribution of fire stations as the City grows.

Chief Chapman emphasized particularly that new growth for the department in terms of stations, manpower and equipment is mandated by the annexations, new industry, and large-scale commercial developments that are, and must be, inevitable if the Queen City is to continue to grow and prosper. Under Chief Chapman’s administration, three new Pierce engines, one Pierce ladder and a new rescue truck was purchased.

Chief Chapman retired in 1999 after serving the department for 34 years; of which eight years he served as Chief. He was succeeded by Captain Larry Savage who served as Interim Chief until his retirement in 2000. Upon Interim Chief Savage’s retirement, the Gainesville Fire Department took a new turn of leadership with the outside appointment of Howard Giles as Chief. Howard Giles served approximately eight months before resigning.

In 2000, Richard W. Taylor was appointed Interim Chief. He served as Interim for ten months before being appointed Fire Chief in 2001. Chief Taylor joined the department as Fire Marshal in June 1997 and served in that capacity until his appointment as Chief in 2001. During his tenure, Fire Station #4 located on Memorial Park Drive was constructed and staffed. The department also purchased two new fire engines; one Pierce which was assigned as a reserve truck and one Rosenbauer which was assigned to Station #4 and one new rescue squad truck. Chief Taylor retired in October 2007 after ten years of service.

On October 31, 2007, Captain Jon Canada was appointed as Interim Chief. He served in this capacity until February 25, 2008 at which time he was appointed as the 12th Fire Chief of the Gainesville Fire Department by City Manager, Bryan Shuler. His appointment was confirmed by City Council members Danny Dunagan, Bob Hamrick, Ruth Bruner, George Wangemann and Mayor Myrtle Figueras. Chief Canada led the department through an ISO grading process after which the Gainesville Fire Department maintained a Class 2 rating.  At the time of this writing, the Gainesville Fire Department is one of 15 Class 2 fire departments in the State of Georgia.

The year 2008 brought a new era to the department under new leadership and many changes were implemented and a plan to advance the department started to take shape. Through reorganization, several promotions were made including a new Deputy Chief. Fire Marshal, Jerome Yarbrough was promoted to Deputy Chief on August 25, 2008. Deputy Chief Yarbrough began his career with the Gainesville Fire Department on July 11, 1984 moving through the ranks. He was promoted to Fire Inspector in August 1997 and was named Fire Marshal in August 2002, where he served until being promoted to Deputy Chief. Captains Mitch Aiken and Jerry Buffington were promoted to Battalion Chief and seven new recruits were hired to fill vacant firefighter positions. The fire department was notified that the current location of Fire Station #1 was slated for new development and had been sold to developers. A site was located to build a new station and administrative headquarters at the corner of Pine Street and Summit Street and construction design and planning started to take shape.

In 2009 the fire department, as well as other departments in the city, faced many challenges in meeting budgets due to one of the worst economic times in history. As the Gainesville Fire Department staff focused on their primary function of service to the community, they were able to meet the demands of cutbacks and still maintain excellent service to the community in emergency response.

The new Fire Station #1 and Administration Headquarters  were completed and the department moved into as of October 2010.The new station is approximately 27,000 square feet. It is a two story brick building with living quarters for the firefighters on the second floor, administrative offices on the first floor and four apparatus bays.

This station is part of a new Public Safety Complex for the City of Gainesville and will house both the Police and Fire Departments on approximately 12 acres located on the Pine, Banks and Summit Street site.

In October 2012, John Canada retired as the fire chief for the department.          

At that time Jerome Yarbrough was then promoted from within the department to the position of the Interim Chief.and then appointed to his current position as the 13th fire chief for the City of Gainesville in March of 2013.

At the time of this printing, the Gainesville Fire Department responds to more than 7,000 calls for service a year. The call volume continues to steadily increase due to the various types of calls requested and as the boundaries for the city s continue to expand.

Over the years, fire prevention has made a tremendous impact on the amount of fire calls received. Through education and code enforcement, the face of the fire service has changed in both the type of calls we respond to and the type of equipment we use.

The fire department responds to all calls received at anytime of the day or the night, seven days a week, 24 hours a day & 365 days per year irregardless of the nature of the call or who is requesting the service.

The men and women of the Gainesville Fire Department serve everyday with pride and professionalism, and consider it an honor to serve the community of the great City of Gainesville.