ELKHART — Throughout its 150-year history the one thing that has been constant for the Elkhart Fire Department has been change.
From horse-drawn fire carriages, improved equipment and training, to new buildings, current Fire Chief Chad Carey said that as the risks and hazards have changed, so has the department.
“Everything is constantly changing,” he said.
Pointing to a wall full of pictures at the department's Central Station that depict the fire department throughout its 150-year history, Carey notes how equipment that was appropriate in the past has had to be updated due to many different factors.
“Fires burn differently now than they used to,” he said. “The risks and hazards have changed compared to what past firefighters have had to deal with. We have more training requirements now and more equipment we use. Things change and we have had to adapt to meet those changes.”
Officially created on Dec. 23, 1867, fire companies had existed in the city since at least 1862, according to a 1965 fire department pamphlet. The pamphlet details large fires, such as one at Jesse Panwell’s tavern in 1848 that not only destroyed the tavern, but a general store and a “few weekly newspapers”.
After a few more fires it was determined that the city needed an organized department and in 1862 company Hose No. 1 was formed. Around the time the department was officially created, the Tucker Hook and Ladder Company was formed, along with the Wide Awake Hose Company and what was then considered the town of Elkhart purchased a steam fire engine.
John Cook, J.R. Brandtley and A.P. Simonton were Elkhart’s first Fire Wardens and in the first fire department ordinance a person could be fined 10 cents for not keeping their house, business or building free from refuse or neglect that could cause a fire.
In 1875, E.A. Campbell was named the city’s first fire chief and the first paid firefighters were enlisted into the department. By 1904-1905 the department had three new fire houses.
ADAPTING TO THE COMMUNITY
Since the early 1900s, Carey said the department has been dedicated to serving and protecting the community, a duty he said the firefighters at the department today carry out with dedication everyday.
“We are actually trying to get back to the neighborhood fire house feel that the department had back in the older times,” he said. “We want to be a part of the community and it is easy to get caught in training or everything we do here and not be involved in the community as much as we would like to be.”
Today’s department features 7 fire stations, 128 firefighters, 3 paramedics ambulances, a water/dive rescue team, hazmat team, technical rescue team and a full all-hazards response department, according to Carey.
Still, even with the larger department and all the change throughout its 150 year history, the department is still a family to those who have served. Carey said he enjoys anytime he can get together with retirees and listen to stories from when they were with the department.
“It is neat to see all the faces that have come through this department throughout the years,” he said.
In honor of the department’s 150th anniversary the city will be hosting two events today to mark the milestone:
- At 2 p.m., near the intersection of East Street and Waterfall Drive, a brief recognition ceremony will be held to share information regarding the history of the department and a City Council resolution honoring the department will be read. Mayor Tim Neese will also unveil an honorary street sign dedicated to Earl Garl, Elkhart’s first firefighter to die in the line of duty on Dec. 11, 1908.
- Following the street dedication, the city’s Traffic Division will paint a temporary red stripe down the middle of East Street, between Waterfall Drive and Division Street, in recognition of the Department’s 150 years of dedicated service.
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