History of Gainesville Fire-Rescue

When Gainesville incorporated in 1873, one of the first acts of the City Council was to appoint a fire committee to inspect property and recommend elimination of fire hazards. Penalties were imposed on violators of this new fire safety ordinance. The council authorized the Mayor to purchase three ladders and necessary hooks for each side of the courthouse square to be used for firefighting purposes only.

In 1880, the first fire company was organized but it was not until 1885 that the fire department was formed and officers elected. The City purchased a fire alarm bell for $90 in 1882 and the following year, 13 fire hydrants were added when the City water system was installed. Previously, the Council had worked out a system whereby a water hauler was paid $1 per barrel for the first wagon load of water delivered to the fire department for fighting a fire.

In 1884, Gainesville’s first municipal building was erected at the total cost of $7,543. The building was located at 210 S. Dixon, or what is the current Morton Museum. It was designed to serve the City in a triple capacity, as City Hall, Fire Station, and a jail or “calaboose.” The first floor was the Fire Station, with storage for the fire wagons and stalls for the horses. Each wagon belonged to a different company: The Red Jacket Hook and Ladder Company, Rescue Hose Company No. 1, and Alert Hose Company No. 2. The insignia for each company was carved into the keystone of the arch over the entry for its wagon. The harness for each pair of horses was suspended from the ceiling and, at the sound of the alarm, was dropped onto the horses for fast action.

In 1884, the office of the Fire Warden was created. Later, the title was changed to Fire Marshal. The early hose carts were hand drawn and by 1884, two horses were purchased by the Council, which ordered hose carriages rebuilt to be pulled by horses. In 1894, The City Council had the forethought to purchase a lot at the corner of Pecan St. and Rusk St. for the purpose of building a new fire station. It would be more than 24 years before the station was actually built in 1918.

In 1913, the Fire Inspection map reported that the Gainesville Fire Department had one paid fireman, two horse-drawn hose wagons, and two horses. The beginning of motorization of the department occurred in 1914, when citizens went to the polls and approved the purchase of an automatic fire truck. Three horses and a wagon were sold and the money was applied to the $3,450 cost of the motorized vehicle.

Between 1897 and 1902, the population increased and the City recognized the need for a second fire station. The original second station became known as the East Fire Station and was located at the corner of Gribble and Morris Streets. This station was home of the Jones family and Hose Company No. 1, a single horse-drawn hose wagon. In the mid 1950’s, a new east fire station was built on the property where the E. Ward School had been located. As the school was demolished, materials were salvaged and preserved for construction of the new station. This station, formerly known as “East Side”, is now known as Fire Station 2, located at 200 N. Clements St.

In 1918, a new fire station and jail were completed on the corner of Rusk and Pecan St. where the City had purchased land 24 years prior. The building was a two-story structure equipped with fire poles that the firefighters used to quickly slide from the second story living area to the bay where the fire trucks were kept. The poles are still routinely used today. This station also housed Fire Administration until 1999. Today, this station serves as Fire Station 3.

In 1923, Gainesville Fire-Rescue transitioned to a fully motorized organization and two new motorized apparatus were purchased. The last horse-drawn apparatus and the horses that pulled it were sold. One of these motorized apparatus would remain in front line service well into the 1960’s.

From the mid 1920’s to the mid-1940’s, little activity was seen in the growth of the fire service. Notes from department meeting records indicate a constant turnover of both paid and volunteer personnel during the war years. With the war ending in 1945, new apparatus was purchased as the nation’s industrial force turned back to peacetime production. A 65’ aerial ladder truck and a 750 gpm pumper were purchased. The pumper replaced the first motorized apparatus purchased in 1918.

The 1950’s and 1960’s saw a trend toward stabilization in the membership. A strong contingent of volunteers provided backup to a smaller number of paid personnel. Membership was limited to those voted on and approved by the members. Waiting lists were maintained for people wanting to become a volunteer. The department operated with a social club environment. The volunteer ranks of this time period were composed of generally independent business owners who could leave their business at anytime. Bankers, car dealers, service station owners, and sales people comprised the majority of the volunteer ranks and turnout for response was high. An emergency response for even a minor fire resulted in every piece of apparatus responding along with an alert for all off-duty personnel and all volunteers to respond.

By the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, a change in the orientation of the department began to occur. With the National Supply Company and Weber Aircraft spurring more factory type employment, the volunteer ranks began losing its ability to maintain an adequate response for fires. A greater reliance was placed on the paid members resulting in the need for additional personnel. The evolution began toward a department of paid, professionally trained personnel with a strong base of volunteer members in support positions.

By the 1970’s, the Gainesville Fire Department began to transition to more of a career department, utilizing a base of volunteer firefighters to supplement paid fire staff. Over the years, the volunteer staff began to dwindle for many reasons. Some volunteers went on to be career firefighters in Gainesville or elsewhere. Others left the volunteer base of their own choosing due to age or other employment situations, which forced them away from the community. The largest impact was that the spirit of volunteerism severely deteriorated due to social, cultural, or personal reasons. Another notable reason for the decline in volunteerism within the organization was the dramatic increase over the years in training requirements and department standards for reserves. The Fair Labor Standards Act amendment in the mid 1970’s began to have a huge impact on the Fire Service, changing the requirements for shift work schedules and overtime. These changes and new requirements required the hiring of additional personnel.

As more emphasis on accountability was being applied to municipal governments, the need for full-time supervision in the department became apparent. In 1981, the first paid supervisors were appointed. These personnel provided direction and supervision on a day-to-day basis. However, overall supervision of the department was still administered by a Fire Chief from the volunteer ranks. This changed in 1986 with the appointment of a paid full-time Fire Chief.

By the 1990’s, the need for additional personnel was justified. The volunteer ranks ceased to be a viable option for manpower. Additional programs and services were demanded and provided to the public. Federal and State regulations forced changes in firefighting tactics and strategies that required more personnel on the scene of a fire at the outset rather than waiting for twelve to fifteen minutes for off-duty or volunteer personnel to arrive.

In August 1997, voters passed a bond election by a 2 to 1 margin for the construction of a new Public Safety Facility. This facility was necessary due to the growth in the northern portion of the City as well as overcrowding in both facilities and to accommodate modern fire apparatus. On August 28, 1999, the facility was opened. The building’s use consists of a combined communications center, common areas, police administration/operations, and municipal court. The facility also serves as Fire Station 1, headquarters for fire administration, the City’s Emergency Operations Center, and includes a four-story training tower.

Although the Gainesville Fire Department began as a volunteer organization/social club, it has progressed substantially to become a professional Fire-Rescue organization, which provides a broad spectrum of both emergency and non-emergency services to the citizens and visitors of our community. Those services include safety education, fire code and life safety inspections, fire investigations, emergency management planning, hazardous materials, and fire and rescue response services.

In the late 1990’s, Gainesville Fire-Rescue assumed full responsibility of the City of Gainesville’s Emergency Management division, which has placed further demands on the Fire Administrative staff responsible for maintaining the City of Gainesville’s Emergency Operations plan, emergency management related training, Homeland Security, and other grant funding. On June 18th, 2007, deadly and devastating flooding from Pecan Creek initiated the re-establishment of specialized rescue teams including swift water and rope rescue.

On September 11th, 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a memorial was dedicated at our downtown substation located at 115 E. Pecan St. in honor of those who were killed in the terrorist attack on our nation. Incorporated into this memorial is a certified artifact (piece of steel) from the World Trade Towers with the original 1882 fire department bell which had been removed from the bell tower and preserved. The memorial also remembers the 1931 line of duty deaths of two former Firefighters and incorporates the rich history of the Gainesville Fire Department with bricks in the Maltese cross that honors all retirees of the department.

Gainesville Fire-Rescue’s personnel are among the finest in the business and are very dedicated to the profession. We respond out of three fire stations with forty paid personnel in addition to reserve staff. Gainesville Fire-Rescue also provides early severe weather warning with trained and dedicated personnel. Our organization responds mutual aid with ten volunteer departments in the county. We are very fortunate to have the strong support of both the City Council and the City Manager's office to offer the quality services we provide. The current and future administration of Gainesville Fire-Rescue should preserve the history and tradition of the organization while preparing for and managing progress into the future.