The history of New Canaan Fire Company, No. 1 can be traced as far back as 1845, if not beyond, when informal bucket brigades were first organized in town. The town’s fire service may have evolved over the years into an organized, formalized public safety department featuring both volunteer and full-time paid staff in the past 133 years, but the spirit that drives neighbors to respond when others are in need remains at the heart of the fire service.
After a local newspaper called for better fire protection in 1869, the original Hook and Ladder Company was formed, which in 1873, lead to the formation of Quinnipiac Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, the precursor to the modern New Canaan Fire Company. The Fire Company as it exists today was chartered on December 8, 1881, and New Canaan Hook and Ladder Company and Fire Engine Company No. 1, was incorporated by the Connecticut legislature in 1885.
The original firehouse was erected on Forest Street and was paid for with a $500 loan. In 1891 a two-story firehouse was erected on Railroad Avenue, now known as Elm Street. In 1938, the current firehouse was constructed at the intersection of Main Street and Locust Avenue. The building has been renovated over the years to meet the needs of the firefighters, and included a large addition that doubled the space for fire apparatus, constructed in 1965.
Firefighters were once summoned to the firehouse by a bell, which was replaced by a large horn installed in the tower on top of the firehouse. The fire horn is still prepared for use in the event normal means of dispatching fire units are offline.
New Canaan’s first fire engine was a Gulf Stream Hand Pumper, purchased from the City of Stamford for $400. Stevens Livery Stable provided the horses to pull the pumper. That pumper was traded in for a truss ladder capable of pumping 300 gallons per minute — an astounding feat in those days. In 1912, Mr. A. H. Mulliken donated a combination hose and motorized fire truck. On its first alarm, this truck had difficulty leaving the firehouse due to the number of firemen who climbed aboard.
The Modern Era:
In over a century of service since 1881, New Canaan Fire Company No. 1 has continuously evolved to meet the needs of the townspeople of New Canaan and the fire service as a whole. Town Charter revisions in 1963 established a Fire Commission to oversee the Fire Company and Fire Marshal’s office. Members are nominated by political town committees and appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
Today, some 30 volunteers are on the roll call sheets, including a Captain, first and second Lieutenants, trained and certified interior firefighters, and probationary members who are going through their initial training. All personnel, including off-duty paid and volunteer firefighters, can be called to respond in an emergency.
Fire apparatus and personnel are still quartered in the firehouse at the corner of Main Street and Locust Avenue, where they have been for over 75 years. Trucks are housed in the bays on the main level, as well as in the added, rear portion of the building, on lower level. The building has been updated with modern high speed internet and phone service, high-frequency radio communications equipment, and computers, among other improvements. These upgrades help personnel keep better records, allow access to the latest fire service training material, and improve communications to and from the firehouse, all of which help improve the quality of service for the townspeople in both emergency and non-emergency situations.
Unlike the days when the horn or bell was the main means of summoning fire personnel for a response, radios, pagers, and even cell phones alert firefighters to calls, and dispatching duties are now handled by the Westport Fire Department after both towns agreed to establish a new partnership on the issue of fire dispatching.
The role of paid firefighters in New Canaan has also changed from years ago. Originally, career staff members were hired to be drivers, responsible for getting apparatus to the scene. Over the years, their responsibilities have expanded to include full-time firefighting duties. Now, twenty-four career firefighters, divided into four shifts of six personnel lead by a Captain and Lieutenant, work twenty-four hour shifts in the firehouse every day of the year.
The command staff of the fire department has changed as well. On July 12, 2013, then-Assistant Chief Jack Hennessey was promoted to the position of Director of Fire Services for the Town of New Canaan and Chief of the New Canaan Fire Department. Chief Hennessey is the first paid chief fire officer in the history of the organized fire service in New Canaan. Currently, all personnel, paid and volunteer, report up the chain of command to the chief on matters relating to the administration of the department and fire company, and tactical decisions on the fire ground.
The modern fire apparatus currently in service are a far cry from their predecessors. They are custom built to meet the specific emergency incidents encountered in the community. The department owns four engine-pumpers, one rescue, one tanker, and one ladder. Each vehicle is designed to carry out a specific firefighting or rescue function.
With specialized vehicles and tools, the training of firefighters has become more rigorous and technical since the days of the bucket brigade. Gone are the days of throwing on a raincoat and boots and charging off to a blaze. Modern turnout gear is heavy, waterproof and fire resistant. Breathing apparatus protects firefighters from smoke and noxious fumes produced by burning building materials and chemicals. These advances in personal protective equipment allow firefighters to be more aggressive in their efforts to save life and property, but require more intensive training for new firefighters, and a better understanding of fire science.
These changes were brought on, in part; by changes in the way homes are built and furnished. With more large homes being built in town, a quick response is needed to fight fires that burn more quickly and hotter than in years past. Newer furniture and building materials are often constructed using highly combustible glues made from petroleum-based products. Newer, larger homes also tend to have more open spaces constructed using construction methods that while safe during normal use, can fail quickly and without warning during a fire.
Today, new firefighters are given comprehensive initial training and certification by the State of Connecticut to respond to structural and brush fires, hazardous materials incidents, motor vehicle accidents, confined space rescues, and a variety of other emergencies in which the public would require assistance. Probationary firefighters attend Firefighter I and II classes, which allow new members the opportunity to learn the basic techniques and procedures required to safely conduct fire-rescue operations. Active and probationary members alike drill in-house on a regular basis to keep basic skills fresh, learn the latest techniques, and build trust between members that will be called upon during active incidents.
Firefighters know their training can be put to the test at any time, in any number of situations. Every year, firefighters are called to structure fires, rooftop rescues, situations involving downed electrical wires, motor vehicle accidents, gas leaks and to extricate animals stuck in drain pipes. Although many of these incidents can be simulated in training environments, there are times where firefighters are required to think creatively to solve emergencies quickly and safely.
Firefighters from New Canaan have put these skills to use without hesitation during times of national crisis. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, personnel from New Canaan were among the many who traveled to the World Trade Center on that day to begin the recovery process. In addition, members travelled to New York’s Breezy Point on multiple occasions in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to aid in recovery efforts and deliver supplies gathered here in New Canaan to those who needed them most.
In the modern era, the vast majority of calls to which the department responds are not working fires. Even though these calls are taxing on fire apparatus, which see much tougher use than the average passenger car, they are evidence of the success of smoke detectors and fire safety education programs. 30 years ago, a fire that began in a pot left unattended on the stove might have resulted in a serious kitchen fire, but today, modern fire detection devices frequently help save property and lives.
Current firefighters report varying reasons for joining. Some were driven by a personal experience or the terrorist attacks of September 11. Others are following a family tradition. Some are simply born with that deep-seated interest in firefighting. It’s been said at a recent meeting that whether paid or volunteer, those who don the turnout gear just want to put out fires and help people. All members hear, and are proud to answer, the same call to help neighbors in need that those who formed the early bucket brigades answered more than 125 years ago.
The Bravest never know what is at the other end of the drive when they roll on an alarm, and throughout its history New Canaan has seen its share of major fires, the first century of which were chronicled in the program from the Fire Company’s centennial celebration in 1981.
A Valentine’s Day, 1875, blaze, called the “greatest conflagration in New Canaan history,” destroyed buildings at Railroad (now Elm) and Main streets, including the Fairty story and the Benedict shoe manufacturing plant.
Archive fire calls of the 19th century frequently mention the loss of barns and nurseries, in addition to houses. A note from 1886 indicates that at the time, the loss of a barn and its contents represented a greater loss in value than the average residence.
A serious fire occurred at Francher’s shoe factory, at Elm and Park streets, in April of 1897.
The Raymond Building (which became Silliman’s) burned in 1899, in what is called “New Canaan’s most famous fire.”
Fire struck the Big Shop in 1904. It was torn down in 1925, and is now the site of the firehouse.
During World War II, A US Army Air Corps P-47 crashed from the sky into a Valley Road residence in October, 1942, destroying the house.
In 1949, a February fire on Smith Ridge caused $100,000 in damage, and shortly after, the Jelliff Mill was destroyed in a March blaze.
In 1951, total calls to the Fire Company passed a record 171
The Vista, N.Y., fire house was destroyed by fire in January, 1954.
In 1958, a March fire in the basement of Gristede’s store caused $7,000 in damaged, followed a week later by a blaze that destroyed LeMay’s Auto Body Shop and cars there for work, causing $60,000 in damage.
In January of 1960, the Silverberg building on Elm Street was hit by a fire that caused $300,000 in damage. A fire around the same time in the basement of Lang’s Pharmacy kept firefighters on duty for 26 hours straight.
A shed at New Canaan Fuel & Lumber was lost to fire in April, 1961, causing $50,000 in damage, but firefighters saved other structures at the site.
A fatal fire struck at the Hampton Inn in January of 1962.
In June of that year, the Fire Company purchased a rescue truck — the first new vehicle it had received in its 81-year history.
In December of 1962, fire destroyed half of a building at 100 Main Street, closing Jake’s Barber Shop anLaundereze. Demolition of the building was ordered in August of 1963. The alarm system was credited with saving New Canaan Country School when an oil burner malfunctioned in April of 1966.
In December, 1973, an ice storm cut power to much of town. Firefighters reported 28 alarms in three days, 15 the day after the storm — both large totals for that time.
Fatal fires were more common up into the 1970s, according to archives. One of the most tragic occurred on Thanksgiving, 1975, when a mother and two children perished in a blaze at their Betsy’s Lane residence.
On July 13, 1976, a commuter train running ahead of schedule collided with a vacant train being moved onto a side track while on the way to the New Canaan railroad station. Two women were killed, 29 people were injured.
The Christian Science Reading Room and Decorator’s Choice store were destroyed by fire in March of 1978.
New Canaan was featured on the CBS television show “Rescue 911” on December 18, 1990, when a segment recounted a call on May 21 of that year when a firefighter suffered a heart attack in a fire engine on the way to a call.
Firefighters were at the ready as 1999 rolled into 2000, with fears that computers, unable to read the date properly, would shut down, stopping essential computer systems and creating chaos. Midnight of 1/1/00 passed without incident.
A fire on Weed Street on February 2, 2005, was frequently cited in efforts to add a sixth firefighter to each paid shift. What then-Chief Jonker said looked like a small fire erupted when ventilation was attempted, sending two firefighters who were inside scrambling to safety. One lost his helmet and suffered burns to the scalp through his fireproof hood. That fire was blamed on a space heater.
Cherry Street East, long a destination for those seeking food and beverage, was closed by a fire that erupted from a fryer as staff prepared to open on Sunday, April 30, 2006. More volunteer and paid firefighters that would usually be present were at the firehouse that morning, preparing for the Young Women’s League’s annual Touch-A-Truck Festival, which had been rained out the previous Sunday. The extra manpower allowed an immediate attack that Chief Jonker credits with saving the building, and the restaurant re-opened after repairs were made in the wake of the fire.