"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." At no time is this truth more self-evident than in case of fire. For the homes of the rich burn as brightly as those of the poor.
Man since time began have needed heat and a means for cooking food; most people met this need with fire. Thus, a dangerous element was brought regularly into homes of the great and small. Usually it served as a powerful but tractable servant, but sometimes it turned into a raging demon. That fire would sometimes get out of hand was almost accepted as inevitable. Our countryside was dotted with cellar holes; families were remembered, but houses were not. The burning of buildings was dismissed as fact, but was always a challenge to those people determined to conquer it.
Fire protection in rural areas was pretty much a private concern at the turn of the century. Although the cities had firehouses and horse-drawn fire wagons, the family farm in the country depended upon strong backs and stout buckets if fire broke out. Neighbors rallied to the sight of smoke, as everyone knew the terrible toll fire could take of a typical home with its connecting sheds and barns.
As soon as the "horseless carriage" became dependable, trucks designed to fight fires were among the first off the drawing boards. As the big city fire departments grew and developed into more efficient units, the people in small towns sometimes found that in case of severe fire their only solution was to call the nearest fire department, struggle as best they could until the apparatus arrived, and then watch in anguish while the professionals "saved the cellar holes."
Fire protection under those conditions became as concern to the town and it's citizens. Londonderry had no fire department in 1949; the town's protection consisted of twenty-nine fire extinguishers located at fifteen publicized places. The total value of this protection was about fifty dollars. When a fire was too large for the fire extinguisher, the only recourse was to call the closest fire department. Many times, this was the Town of Derry.
The total number of taxable property in town at this time was $1,353,588. Municipal expenses amounted to $61,430 and $1,088 of this was spent for fires, about 1.7% of the total town expense. Relatively speaking, this cost was low, but there was little if any real protection.
By 1952 the town's property value had risen to $1,669,381 and the expenses for the year to $88,433. Actual fire costs had gone to $1,658. This was 52% increase over 1949, or about 1.8% of total expense, but there was still nothing to show for the money and still no on-the-spot protection.
Early in 1952, then men gathered together to discuss forming a fire department. In its early days, the complex organization endeavored to find a place for everyone and a use for everyone's particular talent. If a man was not interested in becoming a working fireman, there was still a place for him in the association helping to earn funds, build equipment, or recruit more volunteers. As originally set up, the group grew rapidly and had doubled it's number before the first list of names had been alphabetized.
The name chosen in April, 1952, was the Londonderry Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. John Mclean was president, James Pratt Sr was vice-president and Seth Wing was secretary-treasurer. Directors included Vaughn Jones, Robert Beckley, John E. Ray, Dr. Forrest Drury and George Thibeault. This part of the group handled all business affairs. When the department became part of the town in 1976, George Thibeault was still serving as a director and the other four were deceased.
A second framework within the organization made up the working fire department. The officers were: Chief Ralph Stevens; First Deputy Chief John McLean; Second Deputy Chief Rensford Pratt; Captain George Thibeault; Lieutenants Robert Taylor, Fred Moody and Herbert Bean; Secretary William "Red" Phillips.
The formal organization ceremony took place in May of that year and May continued to be the annual meeting month. For some years a supper for the firemen and their families preceded the business session. Over the years the membership grew and changed; several active firemen were joined in membership by their sons, and at least one family boasted a five-brother team of members-Paul, George, Robert, Daniel and David Hicks.
All members paid annual dues and everyone tried to make himself available whenever there was a fire. No one was paid for his services and a committee was formed to try to raise money to meet expenses. Almost immediately they felt the need for a firehouse and after acquiring a vacant lot on the corner of Foxglove Street and Mammoth Road that already served the grange hall and men's club, they bought, begged and scrounged material to start building.
By the end of 1954 the department had devised a unique system of fire notification. A call to the firehouse activated telephones there and in the homes of three volunteer firemen. At any one of these four locations was a switch to activate the newly installed siren on top of the firehouse and picked up the hotline. The man would write the location and nature of the fire on a convenient blackboard and head for the site with whatever men and equipment were available. Succeeding firemen would read the instructions on the blackboard and activate remaining equipment.
Also in 1954, a two-way radio system linking the firehouse with the mobile units was installed. When the townspeople provided a truck chassis and tank the men built a thousand-gallon capacity high-pressure pumper.
Londonderry at this time was just beginning the population increase that would rise so dramatically during the next decade. Previously, as in many other towns in the northeast, as farming declined many people followed the giant industrial plants into the cities. From 1900 until about 1930 the town's population declined before a slight growth. In 1940, it's forty-four square miles of territory claimed 1,429 inhabitants, while the big city of Manchester had an area only thrity-four square miles.
The townspeople recognized the need for a fire department and at the town meeting of 1953 voted $500 for the use of the volunteers. Thus, the first "municipal" fire department was born. The next year the appropriation was doubled but the department's expenses amounted to $1,314, so the men had to continue their fund drives and money-making projects to make ends meet. But the had built a cement block firehouse then worth about $15,000 and had two converted trucks, two portable pumps, a jeep and a 32-foot ladder.
In those days there was some rivalry between the town's "north end" and "south end." This was not seriously discouraged by those who plotted the course of the fire department, for if one end of town had it's own firehouse, shouldn't the other end have one, too? No sooner was one station finished than men from all over town pitched in to build a second one at the junction of Route 102 and Route 128. Station number two was ready for service in 1958.
By 1960, the department had increased to about sixty members and owned two firehouses and sufficient equipment to answer a call anywhere in town. Never again would the people of Londonderry need to seek outside help because there was no other. In a short time, mutual aid between departments evolved and Londonderry became a full-fledged and highly respected participant.
Throughout it's twenty-four years the volunteer fire department improved steadily in skills and efficiency. Ralph Stevens gave unselfishly of his time as chief for several years and then resigned. He was followed in office by Homer Brewer, who took over in 1965. Having come through the ranks, he was well liked by his men and respected in the community. He enlarged the training program and among the volunteers true democracy was demonstrated. For no matter what job a man held by day, he was equal to all the others on Wednesday evening when they gathered to learn how to use the new fire-fighting equipment they found it neccessary to aquire.
Finally, the time came when everyone recognized that volunteers, no matter how well trained, were not enough. On April 1, 1968, the first paid member of the department went to work from 9am until 5pm. The next year there were three men, one for each station and one to fill in when needed. Expenses rose to over $30,000 and the volunteer fire department raised 20% of it's own funds. This kept the cost for fire protection to 1.6% of the town's total budget at a time when nearby towns had to come up with 7.5%. But even when there were full-time paid men to rely on, the volunteers still donated about ten thousand hours of time, both in raising funds and in fighting fires.
On December 31, 1971 Homer Brewer resigned as fire chief and Daniel Hicks was appointed acting fire chief. On May 24, 1972, he was replaced by his younger brother David, who became Londonderry's first full-time paid fire chief. In the same year the staff grew to five full-time men and the town had coverage around the clock. Improved radio equipment allowed the fire department to handle dispatching for the highway department and to provide part-time assistance to the police.
In 1973, townspeople voted to spend fifteen hundred dollars to build a water hole on Mammoth Road behind the new Leach Library to protect the schools and other buildings in the civic center. That pond still exsists today, is located behind Central Fire Station and is used by the department for training. The water hole held three hundred thousand gallons of water and was connected with a dry hydrant. Londonderry had it's first "municipal" water supply.
By 1974 there were eight full-time firemen and thirty-three volunteers, whose numbers swelled to forty when the chief and the regular men were off duty. The town had grown to eighty-four hundred people and the total value of property to more than $71.5 million.
The Bicentennial year was a year of decision for the fire department. Two more full-time men had been appointed and keeping records required experienced bookkeepers. The firemen petitioned the town meeting to accept them as a municipal department, with authority to rest only in the chief on direct command from the selectmen. The financial end of the department was to be handled through the town office and all the prestige and advantages of being a full-fledged working part of the governement became theirs. For this they legally surrendered ownership of their buildings and equipment and liquidated their treasury with a substantial donation of new furnishings. They planned to organize a firemen's relief association and to continue to meet and aid the town. But from now on anything they built, bought, or had donated to them would be beyond their ownership or control.
At last the time had come for the chief to part with his old red pickup truck and ride in the style befitting a municipal officer. But over two decades of volunteer work had established firm habits. Instead of a new car, volunteers again scrounged an "experienced" vehicle. Local businessmen and individuals donated their time and material. The retired police cruiser they refurbished was complete with flashing strobe lights, screaming siren, two-way radio and a brilliant coat of red paint. Even thought the could no longer vote him in or out of office, the firemen sent their chief off in style to become a full-fledged department head.
On August 7, 1976, Selectmen Noram Russell, Robert Early and Donald Babin assumed jurisdiction of the fire department for the town. In public ceremonies they thanked all the former volunteers and presented each one a certificate of appreciation imprinted with the official seal of the Town of Londonderry.
Twelve years later on June 23, 1988, The members of the Londonderry Fire Department obtained a Certificate of Affiliation with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and unionized. The Londonderry Professional Firefighters Association, Local 3160, was born.
There were 20 Charter Members who made this important move for the benefit of both the department and town. Of the original 20 members, 5 are still active on the the job. Below are the names of Local 3160's founding fathers:
Page Last Updated: May 29, 2013 (22:22:33)