History of Fire Department

Fire Chief

Stan Sharp
[email protected]
(865) 595-4480

Public Safety Complex
1630 Huron St., Bldg. C
Knoxville, TN 37917

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The first semblance of organized firefighting in the City of Knoxville came about with the passage of the twin ordinances of February 1822. The first, requiring each family to own a leather bucket, was the first municipal step toward forming a rudimentary bucket brigade. In addition to the mandatory buckets, strategically placed cisterns in the business district were supplied by water from First and Second Creeks.

The second ordinance created a fire company consisting of a captain and four fire masters in command of all available able-bodied citizens.

In addition to these measures, several ordinances were passed between 1824 and 1850 that provided essential fire-codes, controlling the height and construction of chimneys (wooden ones being replaced with brick), use of certain building materials, and the regulation of fireworks and open fires in the downtown district. In 1850 the Knoxville Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance giving volunteer firemen the authority to deputize anyone at a fire scene to assist in fighting the blaze. Anyone refusing to help would be fined from $5-$10.

These measures, however, needed improvement as Knoxville continued to grow. In 1854, D. J. Stacks, the town marshal, proposed the organization of a volunteer force of fire fighters, thereby establishing the first Volunteer Fire Company consisting of some 100 men. These volunteers were duty-bound to respond to alarms within the city. They were given uniforms consisting of red shirts with pearl buttons. If they wore these shirts when they responded, they were given $2.00 for their service. If they failed to wear the shirt, they got nothing. Soon the city administration appropriated funds to build a double-handled hand-pumped fire engine christened the Deluge, which could be operated by four men. This apparatus, complete with a small-diameter hose perhaps 200 feet in length, two or three axes and a ladder formed the full equipment of the fledgling volunteer department. This engine remained in service until the early 1860's.

The first serious fire in Knoxville was in 1859. M. F. Williams' steam mill, which stood on the site of Knoxville Iron Company's rolling mills, was destroyed. The following year, Powell's Crockery store and White's Dry Goods on Gay Street burned.

As the city grew and funds for additional fire apparatus and personnel became more plentiful, two more engines were bought. In 1860 Niagara No. 2 and Fountain No. 1, both new models and considered state-of-the-art at the time, were staffed by two companies headed by J. P. White and Dr. E. J. Jackson.

In 1867, I. E. Barry, a long-time advocate and member of the fire department, solicited $6000 in private subscriptions in order to purchase Knoxville's first steam-powered pumper. The engine, christened the J. C. Luttrell in honor of His Honor the Mayor, was housed in the station located at the rear of Judge O. P. Temple's residence. The new engine was later relocated to the City Hall on Market Square where it remained until the early 1880's. The engine was nicknamed "Old Brassy," and was pulled to fires by the city trash hauler's mule, which was used by the department for emergencies. Eventually, Knoxville City Council made an appropriation to reimburse the citizens who had made the purchase of this apparatus possible.

At that time, engines (also called steamers), might be of three makes: a wagon chassis with a reel to hold the hose, a basket-like depression which held the hose much like a modern-day hosebed, or a chemical tank with hose. Equipment kept on the engine consisted mainly of a 25-foot and a 12-foot ladder on the sides with fire axes hung near the wheels.

Two pieces of equipment, manned by five to seven men and drawn by four horses, made up a company. The engine's power was derived from a boiler over a fire bed. The boiler was kept full of water, and fuel called excelsior, a mixture of light wood and coal, was kept laid under the boiler. A bin at the rear of the wagon held a quarter-ton of coal. When an alarm was announced, the men manned the pumper, and as it left the station, the engine passed over a gas pilot light which ignited the dry excelsior. By the time the engine company arrived at the fire, the steam was up and the pumper was ready to engage. Horses were kept ready, and were exercised daily at 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

Spanish American War veteran W. J. Sams, who would one day become First Assistant Fire Chief, went to work at Station No. 3 as an extra driver. His description of those days, taken from a News-Sentinel article dated 29 July 1951, related the following regarding horses in the fire service.

"We had two horses for the reel and two for the engine – kept white horses for the engine and bays (brown horses) for the reel," he said. "We made 125 runs my first year there.

"First thing that happened when the alarm came was for the watchman to pull a rope. This rope released a door on the stalls of the horses, and each horse took his place at the steamer or the wagon.

"Those were colorful days, said Chief Sams. "It was a fine thing to see the horses dash from the halls. It was a sad day when motors took their place."

After the acquisition of the first steamer, Knoxville experienced a revival of interest in the fire department by its citizenry, resulting in the formation of the Fountain Fire Company, staffed by some of the most prominent families in Knoxville.

In 1868, the volunteer fire department purchased a hook-and-ladder apparatus from the Nashville Fire Department. It was stationed on Prince Street near Union, and was drawn to fires by hand. E. J. Sanford was elected captain of the Hook-and-Ladder Company, where he remained for many years.

In 1875, George H. Smith became the first fire fighter to lose his life in the line of duty. The packinghouse of Allison & McClung, located on the rail frontage near the eastern end of the freight depot, was burned. Mr. Smith, a prominent jeweler, was assisting in an attempt to push a railcar in danger of catching fire. When a wall showed signs of collapsing, a warning was shouted to the group of men at the railcar; Mr. Smith did not hear the shout, and was killed by the falling wall.

The following year, Shea & Donahue's big tin shop on the corner of Gay and Commerce Streets burned at a considerable financial loss. The increase in frequency and seriousness of fires in the city led city officials to the inescapable conclusion that the department needed to grow. Thanks to the efforts of W. M. Coffman, an influential member of the fire department, the city council purchased a second steam pumper in 1877. The engine, was named Alex Allison in honor of the Fire Committee chairman and department member, Captain Alex Allison. It was refurbished in 1899 by the LaFrance Fire Engine Company, and remained in service for several more years.

On March 17, 1885, after thirty-one years of well-organized volunteer service, the volunteer fire department became the City of Knoxville Fire Department. The seven-man paid fire fighting force, selected by city officials, consisted of Chief Herman Schenk, Captain Abner Smith, Engineer David Newman, Stoker William Newman, Pipemen Louis Ruckart and James Elza, and Driver Ed Smith. These men drew $30.00 salary per year for two years. In addition, city council voted to give $30 per year compensation to fifteen volunteer firemen, who would operate in support of all firefighting operations in the city at a forfeiture of $2.50 for every absence.

The citizens of Knoxville, too, stood to gain something from involvement in firefighting operations. As a type of response initiative, citizens who used their horses or mules to move fire apparatus from the stations to the scene of a fire would be awarded $2.50 for drawing the hose cart and $5.00 for drawing the engine. This was on the condition that the private teams were there to do the job before the corporation teams could arrive. This incentive prompted the speedy response of civilian teamsters to assist in getting fire apparatus to fires.

In addition to the fire engines, the department had two sulky hose carriages and about 2000 feet of hose, kept in a building on State Street until they were relocated to the first floor of the new City Hall in 1888. The department's first four-wheel hose reel, considered a state-of-the-art innovation, as well as the Hook-and-Ladder Company, was also stationed at City Hall. The hook-and-ladder extension truck, purchased in 1887, was used until 1900, when it was reassigned as reserve equipment at the Commerce Avenue Station.

After the establishment of a station at City Hall, the city established second paid fire station in the city: the North Knoxville Station, located at the corner of North Central Street and Emory Park. This station, later known as "Old Fire Hall No. 3," was handy to the North Knoxville market. The fire company was staffed by Captain George Wamble, Engineer Jacob Kessler, Stoker John Moxley, Driver James McIntosh, Pipemen Dennis Curtin and James Elza, and Engine Driver Wm. Lane.

Along with the new company and quarters, the city installed an electric fire alarm system in 1888. Previously, the alarm would be communicated to city hall by telephone or runner, after which the tower bell at City Hall would ring out the number of the ward in which the fire was located. The new electric alarm system was far more efficient and cost-effective, as well as being more accurate regarding the location of the fire.

Knoxville's first hose wagon, built by the Quincy Carriage Company in 1894, was a combination wagon carrying hose and chemicals and was assigned to Station No. 3 at Market House. Built in Knoxville, the wagon was used for many years until it was replaced by motorized equipment. Within the next twelve years the department purchased a four-wheel hose reel, another hose wagon, the chief's "little red wagon," and a new engine, the M. L. Ross.

With the advent of a city expansion program in 1897, City Hall was remodeled and the Fire Department headquarters was moved to new quarters on Commerce Avenue. Soon after this move, one of the worst fires in the history of Knoxville began in the early morning hours of 8 April 1897 and raged for hours. The fire started in McNulty's Grocery store, which occupied a storefront in the Hotel Knox. Police Officer Gowan turned in the alarm, and at Fire Department Headquarters the alarm bell banged out Block 15, the location of the hotel.

At 3:46 a.m., Engine Companies 1 and 2 (the M. E. Thompson and the Alexander Wilson) responded from Central Market Station at the north end of Market Square and began fire operations upon arrival on the scene. The fire was rapidly spreading, and fire officials were increasingly aware that the fire was reaching proportions far outside the ability of the department's abilities. By 5:15 a.m., three buildings were totally involved on Gay Street. The J. C. Luttrell, the old brass Silsby Engine long out of service, had been brought into action at the foot of Union and Central, pumping water out of First Creek. By now the Fire Department building and the City stables were on fire.

At 5:30, the Mayor wired Chattanooga of Knoxville's situation. Chattanooga responded with a locomotive, tender, two flat cars and a coach. This special train was sent via a cleared line direct from Chattanooga to Knoxville carrying the steam fire engine W. L. Dugger, 3000 feet of hose, a combination chemical ladder truck, and nine firemen. The train left Chattanooga at 6:43 a.m. and arrived in Knoxville at 8:35 a.m. - a fast run even by today's standards.

After the help from Chattanooga arrived, the battle raged on. By around ten o'clock in the morning, the order was given to dynamite the Arnold Heneger Doyle and Company building. This effectively stopped the conflagration's progress and brought the fire under control. At 10:25 a.m. Fire Chief McIntosh declared the fire under control.

In spite of the Gay Street fire's enormous cost in lives, buildings, and dollars, and the obvious need to upgrade the Fire Department in both equipment and manpower, it would take another disastrous fire to ensure the city management's positive action.

In April of 1889, McClung & Co., Housely, Cate & Co., Knoxville Auction & Commission Co., and the Davies Furniture Company sustained fire losses. Following this fire City Council, pressured by a mass meeting of citizens, purchased the fire engine M. L. Ross and repaired and refurbished the Alex Allison. Several hundred feet of new hose was also bought.

In 1899 the West Knoxville Fire Station was the last to be established in this era. It was established through the influence of J. Cal Sterchi, then alderman from the Tenth Ward, West Knoxville, and was staffed with a hose and ladder wagon and a company of ten men.

In January of 1904, a South Gay Street fire claimed the lives of Captain Maxey and Fireman John Dunn. A monument was erected to the memory of the victims and their unfaltering courage. First placed on Main Avenue near the old courthouse, the monument was unveiled on 8 July 1905. In attendance was Mayor W. H. Gass and hundreds of friends and family members, as well as the Fire Department itself. The monument was later moved to Emory Park on Broadway.

Yet another disastrous fire broke out on South Gay Street on the night of 12 November 1904 in the W. W. Woodruff Hardware building. Fireman John B. Hawkins lost a leg when a dynamite magazine exploded sending metal fragments through his limb.

KFD responded with its own brand of "mutual aid" when San Francisco, California was devastated by a disastrous fire in the wake of the earthquake of 1906. Funds collected from the men of the department were sent from Knoxville firemen to Chief John Dougherty of the San Francisco Fire Department. The money was used to help relieve the widespread suffering among survivors in the areas devastated by earthquake and swept by fire.

In 1907, Fire Station No. 4 was erected at the corner of East Clinch and Lithcoe Streets. It has been since demolished and Station 4 was relocated to its present location at the corner of Olive and Linden Streets.

In 1909 the Knoxville Fire Department accepted delivery of the last horse drawn pumper purchased by the department prior to its motorization in 1914. The John M. Brooks was hand-braked, coal-fueled, nickel-and-brass plated American LaFrance three-way hitch pumper. Drawn by three horses, it was also the first rubber-tired vehicle in the department. It is currently on display in a glass enclosed building at the Knoxville Fire Department Headquarters.

The John M. Brooks was manned by three firemen - a driver, and engineer and a stoker. The ladders and hose were carried separately by a hose wagon with five to seven men. The engine participated in several historic fires without a single breakdown, including the disastrous Standard Oil blaze in 1910, the Pryor Brown livery stable fire, and in 1916, the Imperial Hotel fire.

A new wagon was purchased for No. 3 Engine Company in 1912, carrying chemical hose, a 40-gallon chemical tank, 1000 feet of fire hose, a 24-foot and a 12-foot ladder, a small sodium acid fire extinguisher, and fire axes.

The department also added Station No. 5 at the corner of McGhee and Arthur Streets where it remains in use to this day. Simultaneously, the personnel of the department was increased to 68 members.

The department was placed under Civil Service ruling in 1912. Prior to this, the only training firemen were given was how to make and break a hose connection. The first Civil Service Examination was initiated that year, providing security for the men and improving the fire department.

Knoxville's first piece of motorized firefighting equipment was bought 2 December 1914, and placed in service on 17 December. A Type 12 Combustion Chemical and Hose Motor Car, it made its first run the night it was placed in service, to 913 Henderson Street.

On 21 May 1917, when Atlanta, Georgia was being threatened by the worst fire in the city's history, an appeal for help from Knoxville was made. A triple 57 pumper and thirteen men from the Knoxville Fire Department were sent to Atlanta under the command of Assistant Chief B. F. Suddarth. A special train of a locomotive, one coach and a flat car carried the men and equipment to Atlanta.

One of the better improvements to daily operations within the department came about in 1919 with the adoption of the Two-Platoon system (essentially two twelve-hour shifts a day, with every eighth day being a 24-hour shift, thus giving each platoon an alternating eighth day off). This eliminated the old system, which required firemen to be on duty 24 hours a day, with only one day off in six. The new system required hiring 25 additional men to put the system into effect, thus bringing the total number of personnel in the Department to 112 men.

In 1929 the State Legislature enacted the Pension law for Firemen and Policemen. A Drill Tower was erected and a modern Drill School organized, along with many other improvements being made in the Department. The Chief's office was modernized, regarding both equipment and a modern system of record keeping. The department also acquired two 1,000-gallon combination pumpers, which were assigned to the downtown business district. Following these improvements, the National Board of Fire Underwriters in 1930 reduced the fire insurance rating in Knoxville from fifth class to third class.

Before 1929, there was only one Fire Prevention Inspector. His office was in the quarters of the Tennessee Inspection Bureau on Gay Street. An office for the inspector and three additional men was installed at Fire Headquarters and the Inspection Bureau was thus formed.

Two Modern fire stations were erected in 1931: one on Kingston Pike, furnishing protection to the residents of West Knoxville and the increasing industry there, and one on Zelda Avenue.

On 9 March 1941, Assistant Chief Rigsby organized and directed an Auxiliary Fire School to train Civilian Defense firemen; 360 men completed their basic course. Besides regular fire training (such as hose evolutions, knot tying, ladderwork and tarpaulins), the men were instructed in proper methods of handling incendiary bombs. All who completed the course were assigned to one of the regular fire companies as auxiliary firemen.

Knoxville achieved Class 3 insurance classification in 1942, but with manpower at a premium due to the needs of America's involvement in World War II, the Chief doubted that the department would be able to achieve Class 2 status until after the war.

In 1949 an ambulance service was added to the department. Purchased by the AFL-CIO, the 1947 Chevrolet Ambulance obtained from the Service Cab Company was equipped with an Emerson resuscitator with an oxygen supply. This was the first piece of equipment of its kind to be used in the Knoxville area. A specially trained squad of firemen was assigned to the ambulance and are credited with saving many lives.

The old Station No. 3 was abandoned and the company moved into new quarters at Lamar and North Fourth Avenue. The department's first battalion district was then established. The new quarters housed an Engine Company, an Aerial Truck Company and the new Battalion Chiefs. 24 men were also added to the department roster, bringing the total count of personnel to 173 men.

With exponential growth and annexation in 1961, the fire department was faced with the new challenge of charting all hydrants, creeks, ponds or streams in the annexed areas in the interests of providing the necessary fire protection. One problem was small water lines in suburban areas. These smaller lines were two to four inches, and pumpers needed a six-inch main. This necessitated the use of "water-wagons," or early tankers. Annexation in 1962 resulted in the Department's area increasing threefold, extending city limits from 26.5 square miles to 77.6 square miles, adding more than 70,000 inhabitants to the City of Knoxville. The expansion of the department began at this point, resulting in the construction of several new fire stations. Fire Station 13 on Maryville Highway in South Knoxville was occupied in the summer of 1962. That autumn, Station No. 14 on Central Avenue Pike, Station No. 15 on Jacksboro Pike, and Station No. 16 on Asheville Highway were constructed and service for those areas went into effect on 1 January 1963. Since these newly constructed areas were not supplied by fire hydrants, a new phase of fire fighting developed - that of using 2000-gallon capacity tankers to furnish a water supply for the pumpers.

With this sudden expansion more supervisory personnel was needed. The City was then divided into three districts with an Assistant Chief assigned to each district. Equipment necessary to meet the requirements of the annexed areas was delivered in 1963. Included were two 1963 Seagrave diesel 75' ladder trucks, seven International 2000-gallon Tank Trucks, and seven Seagrave Class A 1000-gpm pumpers.

The department continued to improve and expand in 1967. Fire Stations No. 4, No. 9 and No. 20 were completed and occupied. The new Training Center was occupied 17 April 1967 and dedicated on 7 October 1967 by Mayor Leonard R. Rogers. The center provided classrooms, an apparatus testing building with connections to a 10,000-gallon drafting pit and a six-story training tower of brick on a five-acre tract.

In May 1968, a rescue unit was placed into operation at No. 5 Station. It was then moved to Headquarters Station in the First Fire District, where it remains. A new modern Rescue Truck was constructed in the Fire Department shop and put into service in January of 1975.

The Fire Department Business Offices were moved in April 1969 from Headquarters Station on Commerce Avenue to the fourth floor in the new Department of Safety Building at 800 East Church Avenue.

Mayor Kyle C. Testerman appointed Assistant Chief Howard Shofner to Chief of the Department in January 1972 upon the retirement of Chief John P. Anderton. Concurrent with this appointment, three Deputy Chief positions were made.

By the end of 1973, the number of employees in the Knoxville Fire Department had increased to 463 in preparation for the adoption of the three-platoon system, which went into effect 1 May 1974. The new system reduced the average workweek from sixty hours to fifty-six hours.

By December of 1973 a new modular type ambulance was placed in service at Headquarters Station. This vehicle was furnished with the latest in emergency lifesaving equipment. Six new pumpers and two aerial towers were ordered in 1973, with a final delivery date of early August, 1974. Also completed in 1974 was the construction of a new Fire Department Service Building, which in turn housed the Apparatus Maintenance Shop, located on property adjacent to the Training Center Complex.

A new Fire Department Headquarters Building, located at 600 Summit Hill Drive, was completed in. Fire Companies of the first Fire District were housed there.

On 12 June 1976, Mayor Randy Tyree appointed Assistant Chief Paul E. Warwick as Chief of the Fire Department when Chief Howard Shofner retired. Chief Warwick served from 1976 until February of 1982, when he retired and Captain A. Bruce Cureton was appointed Chief of the Department.

During 1985, three new Emergency One "pumper-ladder" trucks were delivered and placed into service at Fire Stations 4, 7 and 10. The design of these new trucks was a new concept in fire apparatus in that they combined the service abilities of both engines and ladders. The last recruit class of firefighters had been hired in 1977 and as a result Fire Stations 5, 6 and 19 were closed during part of 1984 and 1985 until the new pumper-ladders were put into service and personnel reassigned.

Through the mid-and-late 1980's many advancements and improvements were made with regard to administrative policies, fireground procedures and day-to-day life around the fire station. Implementation of SCBA's on the fire scene, development of the Fire Alarm Communications Division, and improvement in training techniques made a marked improvement in how the Department functioned.

On 19 September 1984, a truck backing into a loading area struck something and sparked a dust explosion in one of the grain towers at ConAgra, Inc. The fire lasted several hours, with multiple units responding. 3 civilians died as a result of the explosion, including two who were crushed when a massive chunk of cement hit their pickup truck.

On the night of 2 February 1985, in one of the coldest winters in years, multiple incidents resulted in a night of disaster for Knoxville. With temperatures in the single digits, four incidents occurred that would tax the fire department's abilities to the limits.

At 6:10 p.m., a car went over the rail of the Gay Street bridge into the Tennessee River. An engine company, rescue unit and an ambulance were dispatched to the scene, along with divers from the Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Service. After a search lasting for more than an hour in the dark freezing waters, the car was found and the body of the young woman driver was found.

Not long after this, the vacant House-Hasson warehouse caught fire. Used in 1982 as the headquarters for the World's Fair, the 4-story brick and timber structure quickly became a 4-alarm fire that lasted for several hours. 13 pieces of equipment were engaged at this incident. The bitter cold and frozen water lines contributed to the incredible difficulty faced by the firefighters in bringing this huge blaze under control.

In addition to the warehouse fire, trailer trucks at the Bill Mullins warehouse on the east side of town caught fire. In addition to struggling to extinguish this fire, firefighters were also endangered by the trailers' cargo – aerosol cans which exploded from the intense heat, filling the air with deadly shrapnel.

The third blaze of the night was at the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, which was housed in a 3-story building. This fire rapidly developed into a 2-alarm fire. As all the downtown equipment was engaged in fighting the other two conflagrations, apparatus from outlying stations were brought in to fight this fire. Again, the intense cold complicated the situation, making firefighting conditions very difficult.

All 3 fires were brought under control by daylight. A total of 75 firefighters and 24 apparatus were used to bring 3 multiple alarm fires under control in a 5-hour period, in all one of the most difficult shifts in Knoxville Fire Department history.

On 28 February 2005, the Crimson Building on the corner of Summit Hill Drive and Gay Street caught fire, destroying a computer services company, seven condominiums, and killing a dog. Multiple companies and several apparatus fought the blaze, which was called under control by daylight.

On 6 May 2006, Chief Robert Key, Sr. was appointed Chief of the Department, replacing former Chief Carlos Perez. Chief Key's long and illustrious career as a firefighter and fire officer, years of service to the community and the department, and his commitment to the people he worked with made him a natural choice as Fire Chief.

On January 29, 2007, an apartment fire broke out at Townview Towers. Temperatures were in the teens and in addition to the fire, there were several EMS calls at the same time from this location. One civilian was transported and treated for severe smoke inhalation. Multiple units responded, and Master Firefighter James Rickett was burned very badly on both hands while conducting firefighting operations. He was taken to Vanderbilt Burn Center in Nashville for extensive treatment and therapy. A favorite among firefighters in the department and a friend to all, James spent 5 months convalescing and returned to full duty in June of 2007.

In the early morning hours of February 7, 2007 the old Philco Warehouses, also known as the McClung Warehouses, caught fire. Responding units reported what was described as a "firestorm," fiery embers and ash filling the air and endangering surrounding buildings, creating a fire hazard for blocks. Multiple companies responded to the two-alarm fire, battling the blaze that lasted for nearly seven hours. Ladder 3 was lost when a wall collapsed and crushed the apparatus, nearly killing Captain Jeff Lee, Master Firefighter Greg Phillips and Senior Firefighter Clay Collins. After an initial report that the fire was under control, five firefighters – Captain Jeff Lee, Capt. Joe Lee, Master Firefighter Tommy Chaffin, Senior Firefighter Bobby Medders, and Firefighter Jeff Kindrick - went into the warehouse that was adjacent to the buildings that had burned. Fire erupted again on the third floor, closing a heavy fire door that shut Chaffin and Medders out in the stairwell and trapped the Lee Brothers and Kindrick on the fire-floor. The fire spread rapidly, engulfing the entire floor in a matter of minutes. The Lee's escaped by sliding down a firehose that hung from the third-floor window. Firefighter Kindrick did not know they had gotten out and stayed behind searching for the Lee brothers until the 1000+ degree temperatures forced him to leave. He subsequently also escaped using the firehose but lost his grip due to burns to his right hand and arm. He fell three stories to the sidewalk, breaking his back. The Lee brothers sustained minor burns and injuries and returned to duty a few days later. Firefighter Kindrick returned to administrative duties 9 months later in November of 2007.

As the Knoxville Fire Department continues to grow and evolve, we will carry on in the finest traditions of the Fire Service - respecting the past, responding to the present, and implementing new concepts with the future and safety of Knoxville's citizens always in mind