Chattanooga Fire Department Celebrates 150 Years Of Dedicated Service

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Chattanooga Fire Department has been serving the City of Chattanooga and its citizens for 150 years.

"As we celebrate this milestone anniversary, we’re honoring the department’s rich history and generations of firefighters who dedicated their lives to answering the call for help," officials said.

The CFD will kick off its 150th anniversary celebration on Nov. 8 with a press conference at the Police & Fire Pension Fund.

The CFD officially went into service on Nov. 14, 1871 as a volunteer fire department composed of 105 citizens who pledged themselves to help fight fires. Improvements were made from year to year and officials saw the need for a larger department. In 1880, the first paid company was formed. From there, the agency grew and evolved with more members and equipment. 

Today’s fire department is comprised of paid, professional employees. There are 26 companies housed in 20 stations across the city, a Fire Prevention Bureau that conducts inspections year-round, a modern training center and a repair shop. In all, more than 400 dedicated men and women provide firefighting, emergency medical care and all-hazards response 24x7x365 for an area of 143 square miles and nearly 185,000 citizens. 

Officials said, "The CFD is lucky to have its history preserved in a new comprehensive history book that was just published by Heritage Portraits & Albums. The book is a tribute to all those who have served in the department and it documents the department’s story chronically through the years as the agency continually adapted to meet the needs of an ever-growing city. Years of research and countless hours of hard work went into the publication. The history book is just one of the ways we are marking our sesquicentennial. Banners have been placed on all of our fire stations and digital billboards are up across town, voicing our appreciation to the community for supporting our firefighters for so many years. Members of the command staff have echoed that message of gratitude to the citizens on the radio and television. Firefighters are also wearing shirts with our specially designed 150th Anniversary logo. Videos with legendary members of the fire department will be shared on our social media platforms as retirees reflect on some of the city’s biggest fires and all of the technological advancements through the years." 

“Many lives have been impacted by the selfless acts of Chattanooga’s Bravest since 1871. Chattanooga is better, and its citizens safer because of the men and women who have sacrificed so much to simply help others in their times of need,” said Fire Chief Phil Hyman. “The fire department has provided a platform for more than eight generations to help others with courage and duty. Skills have been acquired and grown through constant training and experience. Along with that training, improved tools and equipment have been put in the hands of able-bodied firefighters. For over one hundred- and fifty-years, Chattanooga has seen remarkable growth and has invested heavily in the safety of its citizens. Having increased its numbers of front-line personnel in service and purchasing innovative and life-saving equipment and apparatus, the Chattanooga Fire Department has grown in capacity and capabilities.”

"We are so proud to have served this community for 150 years and we continue to pave the way for the next 150 years," officials said.

More information on the CFD’s beginnings: On Nov. 14, 1871, the Chattanooga Fire Department was formed. Prior to that time there had been no organization of any kind, with the exception of a voluntary system known as the "bucket brigade." It was composed of every citizen who could carry a bucket of water. In the fall of 1871, the year in which Harry Wilcox became the first fire chief, Chattanooga's first big fire occurred. The Crutchfield House burned, destroying all the buildings from 7th Street to 9th Street on the west side of Market Street. Chattanooga suffered from the ravages of one of the most disastrous fires that had ever been known. The volunteer companies were helpless to combat the flames.

The inability of the bucket brigade to control the fire was of great concern to the citizens of the town and they at once set about organizing some system by which to fight fires. The citizens of Chattanooga realized that more equipment and personnel were needed for a fire department. A mass meeting was held and the city people felt that they were not able to finance a department or even a company for this protection. At this meeting, a volunteer company was organized, headed by Colonel Tomlinson Fort. Colonel Fort was a prominent civic leader at the time. The volunteer fire department was composed of 105 citizens who pledged themselves to help fight fires. The petition stated: “We, the undersigned agree to form ourselves into a Fire Department, for the protection of life and property in case of fire and bind ourselves to comply with all rules and regulations usually governing similar associations providing, however, that the citizens and City Council will sustain us in our undertaking.”

Many of the leading citizens became volunteer firefighters. It is interesting to note that the volunteer was fined 50 cents for missing a fire alarm. They were fined $1 if they left the scene of a fire without permission. The citizens realized the need for more protection. Another meeting was called and Harry Wilcox was made the first chief of the CFD. Largely through the efforts of Chief Harry Wilcox, plans were made and the department was reorganized in 1874. A number of community events were held and the proceeds were used to equip the CFD. On one such occasion, $4,000 was raised, all of which were turned over to the CFD.

At this time, the CFD's equipment consisted two reels and a few hundred feet of hose. One of the carriages was a combination reel and ladder; the reel was in the center of the truck with the ladders attached on the sides. The chief realized the inadequacy of this equipment in battling fires and he urged the purchase of more substantial equipment. This led to the first fire engine to run the streets of the city of Chattanooga. The new machine was an Ahrens engine and proved to be very satisfactory, serving many years in the CFD.

Along about this period, headquarters was moved to Broad Street. It remained there until about 1883 when they again moved to West Ninth Street. From time-to-time new companies composed of volunteer members were organized. They were instrumental in the saving of property that might otherwise have been destroyed. Great leadership and dedicated members propelled the agency forward and shaped the fire department into what it is today- an elite group of firefighters ready to respond to emergencies in the great City of Chattanooga. 

Follow the CFD on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @ChattFireDept to find out about 150th anniversary activities and learn more about all of the great things the department is doing.


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