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The Port Washington Volunteer Fire Department

If you think about it, the logical progression of fire protection in a community would be to start with the main organization - the "fire department" - and then organize individual "fire companies" to carry out the mission of the department. In Port Washington it happened the opposite way and it's worked quite well for the past 100 years.

The three original fire companies in Port Washington - Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 (1886), Protection Engine Company No. 1 (1892), and Flower Hill Hose Company No. 1 (1905) - were all organized years before the Port Washington Fire Department was formed. The fire companies all operated independently of any central command until 1907. Up until that time they all pulled together when fighting fires. In 1894 Protection and Atlantic agreed to appoint a Protection member, Eugene E. Carpenter, as Chief for the purpose of commanding both companies at a fire scene. Although the "fire department" wasn't yet organized, E.E. Carpenter was the first fire chief of the community.

Department Organized

Even though there was cooperation at the scene of a fire, it became evident that there was the need for an official organization to coordinate all the activities of the community's fire service. In the beginning of January 1907, a group known as the "Committee of Nine" (three members from each company) began meeting. On January 28, 1907 a proposed constitution and by-laws were submitted to each of the companies for approval. On February 18, 1907 the committee appointed Captain Frederick J. Snow of Flower Hill Hose Company No. 1 as its Chairman, and on March 25, 1907 a meeting was held of the membership of all three companies at Liberty Hall (the headquarters of Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company No. 1), "... for the purpose of effecting a permanent organization and for the election of officers for the same."  The combined membership voted to form the new Port Washington Fire Department the purpose of which, "... shall be the extinguishment of fires and the protection of life and property." The newly elected officers that were unanimously voted into office were:

Chief of Department: Frederick J. Snow (Flower Hill Hose Company No. 1) link to image
1st Deputy Chief: Timothy J. Bird (Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company No. 1)
2nd Deputy Chief: William E. Smith (Protection Engine Company No. 1)
Clerk of the Board: James F. Dinn (Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company No. 1)
Treasurer: Burtis H. Monfort (Flower Hill Hose Company No. 1)
Surgeon: William I. Cocks (Protection Engine Company No. 1)

There weren't a great number of fires in the early years and the members would put much of their efforts into training, maintaining equipment, and raising money to operate the fire companies and the Department.

Early Fund Raising

Beginning in 1909 the Port Washington Fire Department would sponsor a local tournament and parade which became known as "Firemen's Day".

Four contests were held:

  • Hose and Ladder Contest - a contest that involved running 100 yards, pulling a ladder from the truck, placing it in position and ascending to the top rung.
  • Single Ladder Climbing Contest - with a ladder already standing, participants would run fifty feet and climb to the top rung in the shortest time possible.
  • Double Wet Hose Contest- a contest that involved a 100 yard run, stretching 100 feet of hose, attaching it to a hydrant, uncoupling the hose, attaching the nozzle and water to be thrown.
  • Bucket Line Contest.

"Firemen's Day" was an annual event until about 1920. Probably one of the most interesting (and exhausting) feats of the day was the line of march. The typical parade route started at the tournament arch on Webster Avenue, then proceeded to Monroe Street, to Main Street, up Main Street to Monfort's Corner (Port Washington Boulevard & Main Street), to Bernard Street, to Maryland Avenue, back to Main Street, to Mackey Avenue, to Bayview Avenue, to Shore Road (Plandome Road), around Bayles' Corner (corner of Shore Road & Main Street), down Shore Road to the residence of Jacob Cocks (Pleasant Avenue), back up Shore Road to Main Street (Bayles' Corner),  up Main Street to Monroe then to Webster Avenue and ending back at the arch. At the time the roads were primarily dirt and the members of all the fire companies wore "white duck" pants as part of their uniforms!

By 1915 a much needed law was passed in New York State to provide tax revenue for fire protection each year based upon assessed valuation. A contract was signed with the Town of North Hempstead for fire protection services. Heretofore all operating funds were obtained through fund raising activities put on by the firemen or ladies auxiliaries from each of the fire companies. Another advantage of signing the contract with the Town was that all volunteer members would now be able to receive benefits under the Healey Law with respect to injuries at fires or official activities of the fire companies.

Bells and Horns

In the early years a major problem was alerting the members of a fire. The fledgling phone system was based in the old village (lower Main Street). Although a bell was located on Flower Hill Hose Company's firehouse on Haven Avenue, the main alerting came from the ringing of the bell located at Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company on Carlton Avenue in the old village. That bell was quite a distance from Flower Hill and, depending on the direction of the wind, it was not always heard. On many occasions there would be a delay in responding to fires. In the same respect when the bell at Flower Hill was rung it might not be heard in the old village.

The firefighters experimented with a variety of alternatives from placing a whistle at the train station and having it activated by their steam system to actually having the trains in the yard blow their whistles. Finally, in 1919, a whistle was installed on Flower Hill Hose Company's firehouse. Fire calls were made to the Long Island Railroad office and one of their employees would run across the street and activate the alarm. It would not be until 1923 that an adequate alerting system was purchased by the Port Washington Taxpayer's Association for use by the Department. That system was installed at both Flower Hill Hose Company on Haven Avenue and Protection Engine Company on South Washington Street. When needed it was activated by the police department.

Limited Water Supply

In the early part of the twentieth century the water supply system for extinguishing fires was always a dilemma. There was a limited grid of fire hydrants that were located in the populated areas and operated by the privately run Nassau Water Company. The water pressure was a constant source of problems that would continue for many years

The water company was supposed to supply 60 pounds of water pressure but for the most part there would only be 20 pounds. In addition there were numerous incidents of hydrants being frozen and members having to take valuable time to thaw them.   Hoses were connected directly to the hydrant (there were no mechanized pumpers) and word would have to be relayed to the water company to increase the pressure if additional hydrants were to be used. In the areas outside the hydrant grid a bucket brigade was necessary. Whenever possible, Flower Hill Hose Company would stretch their hose lines from any available water source to Protection Engine Company's Rumsey hand pumper.

Ambulance Service

Ambulance service was started by the Port Washington Fire Department in 1927. A 1917 army surplus ambulance was purchased for $50. This was the forerunner of today's very sophisticated emergency medical services provided by Fire Medic Company. Starting in 1930 members would go door to door to solicit funds for the ambulance. This funding method continued into the 1970s when the costs for operating the ambulance service exceeded the amount that could be raised through donations.

The ambulance was operated by members of each of the three fire companies who provided both fire and emergency medical services. This lasted up until 1979 when the increased training requirements and technological advances made it necessary to form a company that specialized in providing emergency medical services. The members of the Department voted to form Fire Medic Company No. 1 which has become one of the premier EMS providers on Long Island.

PWFD Members Go To War

With the United States entry into WWII, many of the volunteer firefighters went off to war. Their places were filled by "temporary" firefighters who served during their absence. One of these members was Mrs. Lee Warrender who was made an honorary member of the fire department and assigned to drive the ambulance. Many of these members left the fire service after the war ended, but some continued to serve the community and fire department. Air raid drills were a common occurrence during this time and mock drills were held to simulate a bombing attack on Port Washington.

An Ounce of Prevention…

Fire prevention week was always a period when the Department would hold demonstrations to show the community the wide array of fire equipment that was at its disposal to fight fires. In 1949 there was a demonstration at the Mill Pond at which the various pumpers and ladder trucks were assembled around the pond and simultaneously pumped thousands of gallons of water. Part of the week long event included a fire prevention essay contest in the schools.

The fire prevention week demonstrations continued for many years and were held at different venues including Manorhaven Park and the Long Island Railroad parking facility on Haven Avenue.

Period of Modernization & Expansion

In 1954 the audible alarms (horns and sirens) throughout the community were renovated and supplemented. As the community grew and housing was built farther from the center of town, additional equipment was needed to alert the firefighters who lived in those outlying areas. Later, in 1968, the alerting system was augmented by "Plectron" radio receivers that were issued to each member and kept in their houses. Years later personal pagers were issued and are still in use today.

Up through 1956 the Chiefs used their personal vehicles to conduct Department business, including responding to fires. The wear and tear on the vehicle was a substantial personal expense for a chief officer. In 1957 the Department purchased its first Chief's car. The Port Washington News reported it was, "equipped with a two way radio and special spot lights as well as a fire siren. It is expected to play an important role in fire fighting in this area."

The ambulance had been housed at a private garage since the service first began in 1927. It became necessary to provide a more suitable location and in 1961 a new headquarters building for the Department was constructed at 423 Port Washington Boulevard across from police headquarters. The building not only housed the ambulance and the supplies needed for its operation, but it also provided administrative space for the Chiefs and Fire Marshal to conduct Department business.

Competition & Teamwork

Drill team and athletic competitions have always been important activities within and among the fire companies throughout Long Island. Port Washington is no exception. The competitions promote teamwork and camaraderie among the members and teach skills needed for firefighting.

From the early part of the twentieth century each fire company in Port Washington had its own drill team. However during the 1960s the number of members participating on the team dropped off and the cost of the equipment escalated. Eventually the drill teams from the three fire companies - Atlantic's "Rowdys", Protection's "Rangers", and Flower Hill's "Runts" - combined to form the "Roadrunners" drill team. The Roadrunners won New York State championships in 1969 and 1973 and continue to compete today.

The same can be said of the softball teams. During the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s each fire company was able to field competitive softball teams that played in local leagues. During the 1950s a team comprised of members of all of the fire companies formed a Port Washington Fire Department team that competed every Sunday against other fire departments on the north shore. In 1986 the softball team won the first of 7 New York State championships as well as winning numerous local tournaments throughout the years.

Technology & Government Regulation

The decades of the 1970s and 1980s brought about advances in technology and increased government regulations. The fire service became more aware of hazardous materials and personal safety. Federal and state regulations required improved equipment, more accountability at emergency incidents, increased training and better physical fitness of firefighters. These substantial changes occurred in a relatively short period of time. The Department met the challenges then and will continue to meet them well into the future.

Changing With The Times

Along with the increased regulations came more record keeping and reporting. And, the public was demanding more fiscal accountability as well. This burden severely stressed both the administrative and line officers, all of whom had to devote as much time to paperwork as they did to firefighting. So, during the 1990s the Department altered its structure to include an administrative board of directors and a paid office manager. This was soon followed by the hiring of several personnel to handle the varied maintenance tasks that were previously performed by the volunteer members. This allowed the members to devote their volunteer hours to training, fighting fires and responding to EMS incidents.

Today, like all volunteer fire departments throughout the country, the Port Washington Fire Department is dealing with the reality of having to respond to more emergency calls with fewer people. We are proud to say that we are meeting the challenge. The volunteer spirit is strong; the dedication of our members unswerving; their attitude is professional; and their commitment to the Port Washington Fire Department and the community of Port Washington will continue on.

We look forward to the next 100 years.