Local News

Fighting Fires Since 1908: A History of Fullerton’s Fire Department

In its early days, Fullerton didn’t have a fire department. It wasn’t until 1908, after a fire leveled three buildings in the downtown area, that Fullerton’s first volunteer fire department was formed. According to the Fullerton Fire Department’s webpage, on an April morning in 1908, when structures on the southwest corner of Amerige Avenue and Spadra Road (now Harbor Boulevard) caught fire, Fullerton residents tried unsuccessfully to put out the blaze. Local citizens had to work together, forming a bucket brigade to keep the fire under control and calling for help from Anaheim’s volunteer fire department. It was this April 1908 fire that mobilized the community. Four months later, the Fullerton Fire Department was created.

I found from a January 30, 1897 issue of the Fullerton News Tribune provided by Local History Archivist Cheri Pape, that residents were concerned that “should a fire break out in Fullerton, almost every business house would be in danger.” The unidentified writer of the article added, “Fullerton is supposed to be up with the times and must take immediate steps to protect our business houses and residences in case of fire.” Fullerton was incorporated into Orange County in 1904, with not a lot of thought given to fire prevention. Similar concerns about fire safety were expressed in a 1905 article from the Fullerton Tribune, with the headline, “City Should Have Fire Protection.”

The original Fullerton Fire Station. Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

According to the Fullerton Fire Department’s webpage, “A Tradition of Service: The Story of the Fullerton Fire Department,” Fullerton residents were awakened from their beds on the morning of April 10, 1908 by a messenger on horseback racing through the streets, firing a six-shooter, and shouting, “Fire!” As soon as the blaze broke out, the church bell was rung; the sound from the bell woke a worker at the livery stable, who then mounted a horse and navigated around town, firing his six-shooter in the air “to arouse the citizenry,” according to a chapter of The Golden Promise: An Illustrated History of Orange County by Pamela Hallan-Gibson. Since Fullerton didn’t have a fire department at the time, a rider was sent over to Anaheim to alert their volunteer fire fighters, who came over with their only piece of firefighting equipment – a horse-drawn cart that could carry up to 600 feet of hose.

However, when volunteers from Anaheim did arrive and attempted to hook their hose into Fullerton’s only hydrant, they found that the threads on their hose did not match those on the hydrant. This was when Fullerton residents took it upon themselves to form a bucket brigade to keep the fire under control. “Had the wind been blowing, it is believed the whole business part of town would have been consumed by the fire, as the city has absolutely no fire protection,” the Orange County Tribune reported. “As the flames were rapidly spreading, men broke into two of the buildings (where Nancy Gregg, former Fullerton postmaster, and the family of shopkeeper E.J. Denkle lived) to notify the occupants of the danger. It was ascertained that Miss Gregg was spending the night with a friend in the country…E.J. Denkle, wife, and four small children were aroused and got out of their building just as it commenced to burn, and lost everything except the piano…”

A town committee met to talk about fire protection and began to plan out the volunteer department on the day of the 1908 fire. According to Fullerton historian Bob Ziebell’s book, Fullerton: A Pictorial History, a report was filed on April 17, 1908, where the committee “cited a plan for obtaining water, recommended purchase of 1,200 to 1,500 feet of ‘good quality’ hose, and announced that between $1,500 and $1,600” had been promised by local businesses to fund a department.”

Early Fullerton firefighters. Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

August 6, 1908 was an important day in Fullerton history because, according to the Fullerton Tribune, this was when citizens first enrolled to be a part of the volunteer fire department. Emerson J. Marks, who was City Attorney at the time, was chosen as chairman of the group and O.J. Harvey became secretary. A few days later, on August 10, 1908, the Fullerton Fire Department became official with O.S. Erickson named as its first chief; Emerson Marks and Gus Stern were appointed as first and second chiefs, according to the City’s website.

Local businesses at the time manufactured a hook-and-ladder wagon and two hose carts for the department. According to an August 2, 1933 article from the Los Angeles Times, “When 3,000 people in Fullerton in 1908 depended upon how fast 28 men could run pulling a hook and ladder truck, a hose cart, and a chemical tank to save burning dwellings, it didn’t take long for the original department to increase its members.” With this increase also came the first fire house, a small, wooden building that was located in the 100 block of West Amerige. Fullerton firemen received a fire bell, two hand extinguishers, a hand-pulled 60-gallon chemical fire engine, and two fire plugs, among other pieces of equipment. In 1909, the building was moved to the 300 block of North Spadra, between Wilshire and Whiting Avenues.

It was also around this time that the City entered into an agreement with a privately owned water company to provide a water distribution system that would help the fire department in the years to come. According to a 1909 issue of The Pictorial American, “water with which the City is enabled to fight fire is furnished by two large wells, and is pumped into three storage tanks, two of which have a capacity of 60 thousand gallons each, and the other of 15 thousand gallons.” Additional water pressure was secured by a centrifugal force pump that had the capacity of 750 gallons per minute under a pressure of 130 pounds, according to the article.

In 1913, the City used bond money to purchase its first motorized fire engine, which happened to be a Seagrave combination ladder, hose, and chemical truck. This engine was stored at a building on Spadra, but later moved, along with the rest of the equipment, to a sheet metal building on W. Amerige in 1924. Interestingly, in 1919, the Fullerton Fire Department bought the first triple combination truck in Orange County.

The Wilshire building, which opened in 1926, served as both firehouse and City Hall. Upstairs served as City Hall offices, and downstairs was where the firefighters dwelled. The firefighters were able to occupy the rest of the building when City Hall moved in 1942. This location would remain their headquarters until 1966, when the present-day facility was opened at 312 East Commonwealth.

A fire destroyed McMahan’s Furniture Co. in downtown Fullerton in 1940. Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room

The Fullerton Fire Department began to branch out starting in the 1950s. In 1953, Station 2 opened at Brookhurst Street and Valencia Drive to serve the west side of Fullerton, and Station 3, located at 700 S. Acacia Avenue, was added in 1958. A bond issue allowed the City to add Station 4 on North Harbor, Station 5 on Yorba Linda Blvd., and Station 6 on Gilbert Street, which joined the other firehouses when they opened in 1968. Station 6 was later moved to a new location in 2004, an 11,000 square-foot building on Rosecrans, which cost $3.4 million and was built for the City by Centex Homes, Suncal and Chevron Land and Development.

Fullerton Fire station #1. Photo by Emerson Little.

In the Seventies, Fullerton was one of the first fire departments in Orange County providing paramedic service for its citizens. In October 1975, Fullerton lost Charles O. Potter, the City’s first full-time paid fireman and original driver of the “old No. 1 truck,” according to the Fullerton News Tribune.

Fullerton was also one of the first departments to make use of cable TV for training and briefings. In fact, the department won the Helen Putnam Award from the League of California Cities for its innovative use of cable.

Today, the department is made up of one main station and six branch facilities. According to their website, each of the six stations has one ladder truck, five front-line engines, and four reserve engines, with a minimum staffing of one Battalion Chief supervising 24 on-duty firefighters. Five engines and the truck are staffed all day. Those five engines are paramedic-staffed and equipped. In fact, Fullerton was the first department in Orange County to use 12-LEAD EKG heart monitors on its Paramedic engines. Fullerton’s first firefighter-paramedics went on duty in 1974 and are still an important part of the department today.

To see my video on this topic, click HERE.

1 reply »

  1. Do you have a record of the percentage of municipal budget required to have a fire department over the years? Assuming economies to scale, the % should be decreasing with population increase, right?