RFD has been saving lives, property for more than 129 years

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Rome firefighters have been racing to the scene of fires, saving lives and property, for more than 129 years.

As the city of Rome prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday this year, here is a look back at how the city’s fire department got its start, from documents on file at the Rome Historical Society:

At first, buckets and hand-pumped horse-drawn machines were used by volunteers to fight fires. But after disastrous blazes claimed whole city blocks, two opera houses, and the Court House between 1848 and 1884, officials gradually added men and machinery to the firefighting arsenal.

Shortly after a major fire in 1866 claimed the city’s Elm Row area downtown, killing one volunteer, a steamer was ordered from a company in Rhode Island. It replaced an 1825 hand engine. A second steamer was obtained the following year. When needed, the steamers were filled with water from the canals, creeks and the Mohawk River — and sometimes even cisterns. But owners of buildings and homes far away from those water sources were often out of luck.

Here’s how the Rome Fire Department increased its resources since that time, with information supplied by a history written in 1991 by William F. Carey, on file at the Rome Historical Society, and with additional information supplied by Deputy Chief Bernard Kaier:

1872: A new water source was developed, from the city’s Water Works on the banks of the Mohawk River at Ridge Mills. Water was piped to hydrants in the city center.

1882: The city installed a fire alarm street box system. When a fire was spotted, a citizen would run to one of 23 boxes around the city and pull the alarm. That triggered a steam whistle at the Rome Gas & Electric Plant on South Madison Street, which directed firefighters to the location of the fire.

1890: The city’s population numbered 14,991. The Black River and Erie canals bustled with business, 30 trains per day stopped in the city, and large and small businesses were booming.

1891: The fire department officially got its start with the appointment of the first chief engineer. Andrew Brickner, 42, was a seasoned volunteer, firefighter and foreman. He was paid $50 per month. Other paid members included four drivers, two stokers and two engineers. They worked six days a week, and were allowed to go home for meals three times a day — walking, bicycling or riding the trolley. If there was a fire alarm, they had to race back to the station.

There were three fire stations:

No. 1 at 216 N. Washington St.

No. 2 at 113 E. Liberty St.

No. 3 at 316 S. George St.

When an alarm sounded, a man at the desk “tripped open” the horse stalls. The horses — with names like “Babe” and “Billy” — showed the pride of the department and were always well-fed and well-groomed. Harnesses were released from overhead and the horses galloped to the scene of the fire.

1895: A huge bell was placed on top of City Hall, 207-213 N. James St. It tolled out the box number of fires, to direct resources to the neighborhood.

1915: The first motor-driven apparatus arrived — ironically, aboard a New York, Ontario & Western train. Hose No. 1 was an American LaFrance, put in service at the North Washington Street station. One week later, the first motorized pumping engine arrived, and was named Engine No. 2, and assigned to the East Liberty Street station.

Old-timers were skeptical about the new equipment, complaining that it cost more to purchase and maintain than the horses did. And besides, they said, the fancy new machines might not start some days. But the horses were gradually put out to pasture.

Firefighters’ hours were reduced to four days on, one day off.

A fire severely damaged the attic of City Hall.

1919: No. 3 station on South George Street was closed. (It is now private apartments.)

1929: Firefighters hours were reduced to 84 per week.

1924: All the first response apparatus was motorized, with the purchase of a new American LaFrance ladder truck.

1938: A disastrous fire badly damaged Rome Free Academy on Turin Street. After that, the department acquired a 75-foot tractor-drawn Seagrave aerial ladder truck, at a cost of $17,727.

1942: Firefighters hours were reduced to 72 per week. Since then, there have been gradual reductions to 40 hours per week.

1949: Two Ward LaFrance pumpers were purchased.

1952: A new No. 3 station opened at 725 Black River Blvd.

1956: Fire killed a family of seven, at 511 Lewis St., off Floyd Avenue.

1965: No. 1 station moved to 1004 Laurel St., and the North Washington Street building was demolished.

1966: Fire destroyed Comstock Lumber Co., bordered by Madison, George and Front streets and the railroad tracks.

1974: No. 2 station closed, and its personnel moved to the new station at 158 Black River Blvd.

1976: No. 3 station closed, and its firefighters were moved to the Central Fire Station, 158 Black River Blvd. The old No. 3 station was later occupied by the city Water Department.

1977: The number of box alarms had grown to 245. But due to a growing number of false alarms, some were removed the following year.

1984: Smoke detectors were mandated in the city, in multi-family homes.

1988: Fire destroyed Price Chopper grocery store, on upper Black River Boulevard.

1991: There were only 172 box alarms left. (Now, none of the boxes are active; most fire reports come in by phone.) Department personnel numbered 99. Number of tools they used stood at 125.

1995: All new firefighters must also be trained emergency medical technicians.

A few of the other serious fires in recent years were:

1999: The fires at the Woodstock ‘99 event at Griffiss.

2003: Hoag Road fire left 3 children dead.

2009: Fire destroyed Tyler Farm barn, off Rome-Westernville Road.

2016: Turin Street fire left one child dead.

2018: Pine Haven fire killed 3 children.

2019: Peterson’s Pets fire, on North James Street.

As the department has grown, so have its requirements and duties. Firefighters must be able to find on their rigs and know how to use, even in the dark, numerous tools. They wear fire- and heat-resistant clothing, and carry self-contained breathing apparatus. There is regular training. The department is responsible for inspections at schools, hospitals, factories and businesses, making sure they meet fire codes. And, they conduct regular fire safety programs for children and others.

The department has an authorized strength of 78, and an actual strength of 76 men.

This column was written for the Rome Historical Society by Chip Twellman Haley, retired Daily Sentinel news editor. Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or guest columns may be emailed to:chiphaley@yahoo.com.Copies of the books “Rome Through Our History, Volumes I and II,” collections of some of Haley’s columns, may be purchased at the Rome Historical Society.

The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org, visit their Facebook page, or call 336-5870 for more information.

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