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History of the Birmingham Fire Department

Updated: Jun 28, 2023
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History of Birmingham's Fire Department

Early Efforts
Fire TowerIn the early days, the Village of Birmingham fought fires with citizen volunteers and water carried by wagon. In May of 1894, an organized effort by prominent villagers created the first volunteer fire service for the town with Almeron Whitehead (also founder of the Eccentric Newspaper) named as Captain. Fire-fighting personnel consisted of willing local citizens, who fought fires the best they could.  Equipment was purchased that reflected the technology of the time, consisting of two hose carts, 1000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a fire alarm and electric station, and the all-important 60 foot hose tower for hanging and drying the hoses. (The original fire tower bell is now displayed in front of Fire Station 1 (the Adams station.) Water needed to be pumped from village wells, which sometimes did not have sufficient pressure.  Photos: Birmingham’s fire hose tower on Maple just west of Woodward, c1900;  right: Chief James Cobb on a horse drawn wagon outside the Volunteer station on West Maple, c1914. (Birmingham Museum Collection)

Fire Wagon

In August of 1913, the Birmingham Fire Department was formally organized as a volunteer department with a dedicated building located on the southeast corner of Maple and Old Woodward. New equipment consisted of one hand operated chemical cart and one hand drawn ladder cart.  The department was a fraternal order, with no one receiving pay for his services.  In fact, they had to pay a $5.00 membership fee and ten cents a month dues to belong!  The first Chief was James Cobb, from1913—1915, who was succeeded by William G. Olsen, who held the position of Chief from 1915 until 1930.   In 1914, the Department bought its first piece of motorized equipment--a Republic chemical truck.  Three years later, The Fire Department got its second piece of motorized equipment, which was a Gram-Burnsten chemical truck.  This vehicle served three purposes: first as a chemical truck, second as a hose truck and third as a ladder truck.

The Tragic Fire that Changed the Department
Field Building FireAlthough the improved equipment was important, a tragedy occurred on July 1, 1923 that proved it wasn’t enough and created a turning point for the Department. The Field Building on (Old) Woodward caught fire in a huge blaze that could not be controlled by the Fire Department with the equipment and water resources available. The City of Pontiac was called in and pumped water in relay from the Rouge River up to Birmingham’s trucks to supply enough water to put out the fire.  This proved that Birmingham needed a pumper truck, so in 1924 the Village purchased an

Volunteers in La France pumper

  American La France pumper, known as Engine 99.  This truck soon replaced the 1914 Republic; the use of chemical trucks was fading fast. Photos: The Field Building fire, 1923; the 1924 LaFrance engine. (Birmingham Museum Collection)

Fire Department at City HallThe years from 1926 to 1931 were a time of growth  for the Birmingham Fire Department.  In 1926, a bond issue for $50,000 was sought to build a fire station on Hamilton Avenue.  Chief Olsen suggested that the Village use the $50,000 in funds and add another $18,000 to instead build a fire station on the east side of the new Municipal Building at Merrill and Pierce Streets under construction at the time. This would create the station as the East Wing of the Municipal Building.  In February 1928, while waiting for the station at City Hall to be completed, the Fire Department temporarily moved to a building on Brownell (Peabody Street). The fire station was built  for a total cost of $68,000.    In November of 1929, the Department moved into its new home at the new City Hall. Photo: The Fire Department at the Municipal Building, early 1950s (Birmingham Museum Collection)

Becoming a Professional Fire Department
Department Photo Nineteen fiftiesJuly 1, 1927 was a significant day for the Birmingham Fire Department, which entered a more professional realm with its first paid firefighters. The department consisted of a combination of four paid and twenty-four volunteer personnel.  Chief Olsen continued as a volunteer Fire Chief, retiring in 1930. In 1931, V. W. Griffith was appointed Chief of the paid department, serving until August 27, 1955, when he was replaced by Park H. Smith.

Engines in the Nineteen fifties

In 1954, the Department joined Pontiac, Royal Oak, Ferndale and Hazel Park fire departments to form the Oakway Mutual Aid Pact.  This Mutual Aid Pact now has grown to nine municipalities including Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Ferndale, Madison Heights, Pontiac, Royal Oak, Southfield, Waterford Township and West Bloomfield Township. In 1955, after outgrowing the Municipal building, the Department moved into the original Adams Fire Station and the Chesterfield Fire Station he East Wing of City Hall was taken over by the Police Department. On February 8, 1963, Chief Smith retired and George Scott replaced him.  Tragically, Chief Scott was killed in a plane crash in 1964.  Assistant Chief Stan Pepperell served as Acting Fire Chief until C.G. Nunnelley was appointed Chief in 1965. Photos, above: The Department bursting at the seams in the early 1950s; two of the Department’s engines, including the La France, near the Municipal Building fire station. (Birmingham Museum Collection)

Leading the Field
In the latter part of the 20th century, the Birmingham Fire Department continued to grow and develop. In 1979, it became licensed to operate Advanced Life Support, a significant event in the history of the Department.  As our paramedics are also certified firefighters, the first response of Fire Department EMS provides the best possible service to the citizens of our community; response times of private ambulance services far exceed the Birmingham Fire Department’s average of two minutes and twenty seconds.

BFD logoIn 1986 the Department spearheaded the formation of the Oakway Hazardous Materials Response Team.  The Mutual Aid Pact formed the Response Team to respond to chemical emergencies.  By joining forces and sharing costs, the Response Team has become an example for other teams in the state. In 1995, the original Adams Fire Station had deteriorated to such a condition that it needed to be replaced.  While planning a new station, it was extensively shored,  to allow  it to continue in use. After a lengthy construction period, the new Adams Station (now Station 1) was built immediately behind the original Adams Station  and  occupied June 11, 1997.  By 2002, the drill tower had been replaced.

We Remember
Twin Towers ArtifactThe Birmingham Fire Department has been revered by the community and has always valued its long history and the community it serves. This recognition shows in some of its most cherished artifacts that have been preserved to share with the public.

In 2000, a  landscaped garden was built at the Adams Station and the historic volunteer fire bell was placed there. In 2011,  the Department received a one-cubic-foot piece of steel I-beam as a memorial of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, donated by the  Lilly Epstein Stotland family. A showcase displaying the artifact was placed in the lobby of the Adams Fire Station to commemorate the 2,977 total lives lost, 343 of whom were brother New York City firefighters. Photo: the Twin Towers artifact on display at Station 1 (Birmingham Museum Collection)

And, to honor the memory of firefighter Patrick C. Nagel, the Birmingham Fire Department established the Pat Nagel “Keep the Dream Alive” Community Award. Nagel was dedicated to the Birmingham community and had a profound effect on elevating the nobility of the profession of firefighting.  This award was created to recognize those in the community exemplifying the characteristics that Pat brought to the Birmingham Fire Department every day.

Birmingham Fire Chiefs

1913-1915- James Cobb                                1978-1990- Gary Whitener    
1924-1930- William. G Olsen                         1990-1997- Edward Weber
1931-1955- V.W. Griffith                                  1997-2003- Dave Edginton
1955-1963- Park H. Smith                                2003-2008- Tim Wangler
1963-1964- George Scott                                2008-2015- Michael Metz
1964-1965- Stan Pepperell (Acting Chief)    2015-2018- John Connaughton
1965-1978- C. G Nonnelley                             2018-Present- Paul Wells

Line of Duty Deaths (LODD)

Those members honored for making the greatest sacrifice; lost but never forgotten.

    • Fire Investigator Lee Carroll- In 1949, an explosion of N. Woodward (now Old Woodward), killed Fire Inspector Lee Carroll.  He was investigation a natural gas leak and was in the building when it exploded.
    • Firefighter Thomas Brown- In 1973, Firefighter Thomas Brown was killed while operating in the basement of a structure fire on Brown Street.  There were numerous injuries as a result of the crew getting trapped in the basement. 
    • Assistant Chief Harvey Renshaw- In 1977, Assistant Chief Harvey Renshaw suffered a fatal heart attack in the Adams Station during an emergency response to the high school.

Off Duty Deaths

    • Lieutenant Robert Ives- 1952- March-11-1960 (8 years of service)
    • Chief George Scott- 1936-July-8-1964 (28 years of service)
    • Firefighter Pat Nagel- 1997-September-02-2013 (16 years of service)
    • Firefighter Evan Johnesee- 2003- November-24-2014 (11 years of service)

Firefighters Prayer

“When I am called to duty, God wherever flames may rage, give me strength to save a life, whatever be its age.  Help me to embrace a little child before it’s too late, or save an older person from the horror of that fate.  Enable me to be alert to hear the weakest shout, and quickly and efficiently to put the fire out.  I want to fill my calling and to give the best in me, to guard my neighbor and protect his property.  And if according to your will I have to lose my life, bless with your protecting hand my loving family from strife.”