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November 22, 2017
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IAFF Local 853 History

Lowell Fire Department History

In the early nineteenth century before Lowell was established as a city, fire protection existed primarily in the form of the Lowell United Fire Society’s buckets.  For each adult male, a leather fire bucket was required to be kept at hand, in the event of a fire.  The citizens were the firefighters.  Fire wards, prominent community men, were appointed in the town of Lowell in 1826 and given absolute authority to command in time of fire and the power to fine for refusal.

            When fire wards met on the first Monday of March 1829, they decided the time had come to establish a fire department.  One thousand dollars was approved to purchase a fire engine for the town and inquire about the legal establishment of the department.  Within a month an agreement with Thayer of Boston was established for a suction engine at a cost of $650.  At 86 cents per foot 250 feet of hose was purchased from a Mr. Boyd of Boston.  The April town meeting appointed the fire wards to build a house for the new engine and keep ladders and hooks.  Lowell’s first firehouse was built on Locks and Canals Land on Central Street, in what is now the heart of downtown Lowell, and the engine called “Niagara” took up residence

            On February 6, 1830 by an act of the Massachusetts Legislature the Fire Department was established for the town of Lowell. That same year the first bylaws of Lowell Engine One were published, though no formal company of men existed until 1832.  The Board of Engineers was established in 1832 and Lowell became a city in 1836.  In 1842 men performing fire duty were awarded twenty cents per hour, the first monetary compensation for serving.  By 1843 as many as thirteen engines were in the city, but the majority were still privately owned by mills to protect their property.  Between 1850 and 1851 hydrant pipes were laid and connected to the Belvidere reservoir, providing a water supply from the Locks and Canals Corporation.  Until city water was introduced in December 1872, private water and standing reservoirs were the only source of water for firefighting.

            The first steam-powered fire engine was purchased in 1859 and the first permanent firemen to drive and maintain them soon followed. In 1864 only one of the engines remained privately owned and the transition to a municipal department was near complete. Two more steamers were added in 1866 and in 1868 the department did away with hand-powered engines for front line service. The system of Steam Engines, Hose Companies and a Ladder Trucks was now firmly established in the city by the 1870s. With heavier apparatus, horses began their period of prominence in the department with their numbers increasing through the start of the twentieth century.

The fire alarm telegraph came to Lowell in 1871 improving the method of alerting fire companies to respond.  The telegraph box replaced a system of ringing the ward section of the city on the Market House bell and led to designated response areas for each company, a practice still in use today.  Through the latter half of the nineteenth century the department embraced new technologies with Chief Engineers advocating for chemical engines, fire extinguishers, horse drawn carriages, stop and spray nozzles, cotton jacketed rubber hose and a water tower.  The threat of fire to life and livelihood was real in the densely populated city and the department was successful in obtaining the necessary advances in firefighting capabilities.  New firehouse construction began in 1875 and remained steady to serve the growing city into the 1920s.  Many of the stations built still operate to this day.  Attendance at conferences, professional networking between departments, mutual aid response and the need for a full time staffed departments were concepts that gained prominence as well.  By 1898 the use of company names and antiquated titles of foreman, assistant foreman and clerk were abandoned.  Companies were designated by task and number, and the titles of Captains and Lieutenants were firmly established.

At the start of the twentieth century a majority of the department became full time paid members with many members residing in the stations in a paramilitary structure.  With the continued growth of the city came an increase in the need for service.  The number of calls topped 1000 for the first time in 1910, the same year the first motorized apparatus was added.  The department embraced motorization and by 1925 the last horse drawn apparatus responded.  Prevention became a new focus of the department, as the causes of fires were tracked, many found to be the result of carelessness or worse, arson.  The department was at the forefront in advocating for tougher building standards, regulation of flammable materials and increased the inspections of hazardous conditions.

The department became entirely permanent in 1920 and firefighters began to achieve gains in better working hours.  Firefighting grew into a respected profession through the dedicated work of firefighters.  Better equipment advances led to the addition of stronger aerial ladder trucks, larger pumps on engines and the ability to carry water, a pump, and hose on the same engine, thus eliminating the need for separate hose companies.  However as the city aged and the economy rose and fell with the city’s industries, fires became more prominent.  In the latter half of the twentieth century entire neighborhoods became blighted and suffered their rash of fires.  Whether it was Little Canada, Hale-Howard, The Acre or Lower Centralville, all of Lowell’s neighborhoods were impacted by fire, many times the result of arson.  With the collapse of manufacturing in Lowell, many of the city’s mills would fall as the result of fire.

Today the Lowell Fire Department responds to over 10,000 calls for service annually. With fire alarm systems, sprinklers and more stringent codes, fires have decreased, yet the job and responsibilities of a Lowell firefighter has diversified and increased.  Today in addition to fires the department responds to medical emergencies, hazardous materials and rescue calls of every type.  With the threat of terrorism, domestic preparedness has become yet another challenge for Lowell firefighters.  Inspection programs and public education are now important avenues for firefighters to help prevent fires.  The standing army to protect the public, advocated by Chief Engineers almost one hundred and fifty years ago, is a reality and the city is a better place for the service its firefighters have, and will continue to perform for strangers, at a moment’s notice.  The photos in this book represent the proud tradition of the fire service in Lowell and are a tribute to all of Lowell’s firefighters who have answered the call.

"Text and Images courtesy of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America: Lowell Firefighting by Jason Strunk copyright 2006"

 




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