History of Thunder Bay Fire Rescue
The City of Thunder Bay comprises the former twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William and the townships of McIntyre and Neebing. Port Arthur, originally known as Prince Arthur's Landing, and Fort William, which included the Fort area and the west Town Plot area called "Westfort" were incorporated as cities in 1907. Both had their fire department beginnings with "bucket brigades" and out of necessity organized volunteer fire departments, complete with hand and horse drawn hand pumps - Port Arthur in 1884 and Fort William in 1892.
On May 1, 1909 Fort William instituted a full time paid Fire Department complete with uniforms, under the direction of Fire Chief A. D. Cameron, formerly the Deputy Chief of the Hamilton Fire Department. His Deputy Chief was Archie McEwan a seasoned volunteer. The department included 15 firefighters, horse drawn steamer pump, ladder and hose wagons responding from two relatively new fire stations, Central fire hall on Brodie Street built during 1902 - 1903 and Brown Street fire hall built and opened in 1908. These halls had been originally constructed for the volunteers.
The second story of the Brown St. fire station contained a two bedroom apartment where Deputy McEwan who was on duty 24 hours a day resided with his family. A son was born to the McEwans in this apartment. The station also contained a police room complete with holding cell.
This station was actually built to replace the original Fort William "Town Plot" Station which in 1892 was located on Ann Street, next to the railway tracks two streets south of Gore Street. Years later Deputy McEwan and firefighter Tom Ross paid the supreme sacrifice at the raging Mandarin Cafe fire on Victoria Avenue, November 15, 1940.
Port Arthur instituted its full time paid department on November 16, 1912, with former volunteer Chief Roderick McLeod the new Fire Chief and Alex Hope who had only been a volunteer for one year as his Deputy. This department comprised 9 firefighters, 6 horses, a horse drawn 100 psi steamer pump, hose and ladder wagons, chemical wagon and Chiefs buggy all responding from Court Street fire station. This all brick building was constructed in 1907 for the volunteers to replace the wooden structure which had been moved from its original water front location at the foot of Arthur Street (now Red River Road) in 1900.
The firefighters of both departments were paid $75 per month and worked 24 hours per day, 6 days a week. Each was given 1 hour off daily to "attend a family or restaurant meal".
On July 1912 Fort William purchased a new horse drawn Waterous steam pumper from the Waterous Engine Co. of Brantford Ontario. This modern pumper weighing 6 tons produced 100 psi steam in 10 minutes and delivered 800 gpm from 3 hose lines. It was in service until 1924.
Both departments purchased their first motorized apparatus in 1913, each adding a "Seagrave" chain drive combination pumper hose truck. Each truck was equipped with 6 cylinder air cooled engine, right hand drive controls and solid rubber tires. They were transported to these bustling cities at the head of the lakes by rail, and delivered "horse drawn" to the fire stations as no one knew how to operate them. Fort William department immediately hired local mechanic Harold Kirbey as a full time firefighter to operate and maintain this new pumper.
The year 1913 also saw the opening of # 2 fire station for Port Arthur, situated on north Hill Street. This location would greatly reduce response times to the hillside areas. Fort William began the construction of a third fire station at the corner of St. Paul and Pacific Avenue to better protect the rapidly expanding industrial and housing developments of the "coal dock" area. Named Pacific station it was opened on October 3, 1914. This solid brick two story building was built at a cost of $16,000 and would accommodate firefighters, a horse drawn pump, horse drawn ladder wagon, and included a 5 horse stable and police substation.
A great change for local firefighters occurred in 1919. After 10 years of existence the Fort William firefighters joined the International Association of Fire Fighters and on June 3, 1919 received IAFF charter # 193 designating them the 193rd unionized fire department in North America. Shortly after, and without Port Arthur in the IAFF, by an act of both city councils and without a loss in pay, the two platoon work schedule was adopted reducing the hours of work to 72 per week and more firefighters were hired. Fire stations were community landmarks and the courageous men who manned them were highly respected within these communities. With high mechanical aptitudes and trained in rescue and first aid, they offered a wide variety of help to those in need. These early firefighters served many charitable organizations and completed such extra tasks as washing windows on the cities hospitals.
The two cities steadily increased their fleets of motorized equipment and in 1928 the last of the great and faithful "fire horses" were retired. The depression years of the thirties were tough, wages declined and Port Arthur was forced to close its #2 station on Hill Street in 1932. Fort William did however take delivery in 1933 of an International model A 1 1/2 ton semi-trailer ladder truck. Prompted by the conditions of the day Port Arthur firefighters also joined the IAFF and on November 10, 1936 received IAFF charter # 496.
With the war ending the head of the lakes was bustling with activity. Population was increasing, grain elevators, paper and lumber mills, ship building, steel and iron foundries, mining and manufacturing to name a few, were at full production. At this time firefighters were a very busy lot. Both cities had suffered some severe incidents, particularly the series of devastating elevator explosions in Port Arthur beginning in 1945 and such large fires as the Snelgrove Evans fire in Fort William on April 25, 1950 which involved 36 buildings.
The next significant change came after World War 2 and saw Fort William on May 1, and Port Arthur on June 1, 1946 changed to a 3 Platoon work schedule. With Firefighters now working 3 shifts of 8 hours 6 days per week "the 48 hr. work week" was introduced. In Fort William 46 more firefighters were hired. Starting wages were $120 per month with an increase to $135 for first class status after four years service.
The early 1950s saw the introduction of two way radio communications from fire stations to pumpers only, no portable radios were in use. Rescue trucks nicknamed "bread wagons" because of their similar look to bread delivery trucks of the day, were outfitted and put into service and in 1958, and at this time full time Fire Inspectors were appointed.
Soon the need for more and better equipped firefighters was apparent. Incidents such as the ones noted above and fire fatalities including those of on duty firefighters prompted the purchase of 100 ft. Aerial ladders, new pumpers and related equipment in both cities. The original Brown St fire station was retired from fire service and a new one built at the corner of Amelia and Brown Streets at a cost of $23,000. Firefighters made the transfer to this modern single story station in the summer of 1947.
On June 1, 1954 Port Arthur again opened a new # 2 fire station, this time on Hodder Avenue, located near the shipbuilding and paper mill industries in the Current River area. The remarkable old Fort William central fire station "Brodie St." was beginning to show her age, and with the city growing, and property values up it was sold. The property to be developed by a hotel chain and the firefighters were reluctantly moved into temporary quarters at the Vickers St. hydro building on May 27, 1963. Construction of the modern day fire station across the street at 330 Vickers Street North commenced immediately and in the summer of 1964 the new and present Fire Department Headquarters was occupied.
The Township of Neebing during the 1960s had developed a volunteer department and in 1967 with full time paid Fire Chief Larry Sheedy at the helm opened a new fire station at 2065 20th Side Road. The station was complete with office, meeting room and apparatus area housing a 1967 Dodge pumper and an older remanufactured tanker truck. Fort William Fire Department provided aid to Neebing and the adjacent Indian Reservation, as did Port Arthur Fire Department who afforded aid when called on, to McIntyre Township.
At the hand of the Provincial Government of the day, amalgamation was forced on the two cities and two townships. A referendum was called to select a name and the City of Thunder Bay was born January 1, 1970. The transition was a bit traumatic for everyone except the fire department. With firefighters being able to cope under any circumstance the amalgamation of the collection of 6 fire halls, all of the apparatus and equipment, 82 personnel from Fort William, 70 from Port Arthur, 1 from Neebing, and of course the differing collective agreements of the Firefighters Associations was all carried out with an air of professionalism.
Thunder Bay Fire Service January 1, 1970
Walter J. Drew former Port Arthur Chief was appointed the new Fire Chief. Former Fort William Chief William G. (Bill) France, (1955 President of the Ontario Professional Firefighter Association) was appointed his Deputy. Former Deputies Pat Hope and Jack Black along with senior captains, one from each city, Lorne McLeod Port Arthur and Don McLean Fort William were appointed to new positions of Platoon Chiefs. Neebing Fire Chief Larry Sheedy was assigned to the fire suppression division with first class Firefighter status. Full time Fire Prevention, Training and Mechanical Divisions were instituted respectfully under the direction of Captain Art Perry P.A., Captain Jack L. Bryant Fort William who became Fire Chief in 1980 (with the untimely death of Chief Drew), and Captain John Barrett. First class Firefighter wages were $7,200 per year.
At a dinner and dance reception held November 30, 1970 at the Thunder Bay Labour Centre, the now deceased Captain Victor Poulin, President of the Thunder Bay Firefighters Association was presented the International Association of Fire Fighters amalgamated charter #193 by Howard McClennan, Washington USA, President of the IAFF and Bernard Bonser, Toronto Ontario, Vice President of the IAFF.
Plans were soon drawn which saw the addition in 1971 of the present third floor administration area to the Vickers Street Headquarters.
The ensuing years have brought about many changes. The '70s and '80s were thriving years both for the department and its firefighters. New equipment and apparatus was added almost annually. March 1972 brought about implementation of the four platoon 10 hour day shift & 14 hour night shift work schedule. The new Junot Avenue station in the north east section of the city was opened July 1973 with 16 additional firefighters being hired. February 1976 saw the opening of another new station at the corner of Churchill Avenue and James Street to cover the mid west city area that was often hampered by long response time due to rail traffic. Again 16 Firefighters were subsequently hired.
During the winter of 1976 firefighters were temporarily housed in a vacant service station while the Brown St. station was totally renovated complete with new living area. It re-opened in October 1977. A much needed 9th fire station, Mapleward was opened in August 1983 at the corner of Mapleward and Government Roads which would serve the growing population to the northwest section of the city. On April 1, 1986 an era ended when the last of the horse stable stations with its call to duty bell tower, the 79 year old Court St. station was retired. It was replaced with a expansive new three story North Central fire station complete with state of the art self contained mechanical shop overlooking the harbour at 60 Water Street.
One of our more notable and largest fires during this time was the Cooper Block fire at Victoria Avenue and May Street in the south core area on the evening of Friday, January 5, 1973. The temperature was -27 F (-32.7 C) and a severe working fire involving three storey retail outlets, offices and residential occupancies where rescue was required came in. When the last of the hose and equipment was returned to stations on Monday January 8th, 38,000 ft of hose had been used and 15 Firefighters had sustained injuries.
Jack Bryant who became Fire Chief in 1980 retired and his Deputy, William Mill became Chief in 1987. At this time the department was responsible for fire protection for an area of 322.5 square kilometres, comprising of 44 kilometres of Lake Superior shoreline and several interior waterways.
A milestone was reached in 1991 with Fire Chief Al McDevitt (1988-1993) at the helm. The Thunder Bay Professional Fire Fighters Association was awarded a minimum staffing clause by a board of arbitration, which mandated that pumpers be "manned with no fewer than four (4) full-time firefighters". This was to be fully implemented no later than October 1, 1994, and was done so by Fire Chief James Hamer (1993-2000). The Fire Fighter Defibrillation program was also initiated under Chief Hamer in February of 1996. The program's fundraising committee collected $44,000 from a variety of service groups, Legions, local businesses and private citizens and during the period of 1996-2000 saved 28 lives in coordinated efforts with Thunder Bay Ambulance and Base Hospital.
The '90s brought some bad times as well. After a consultants study was issued, the department saw the closure of Pacific Avenue fire station and the deletion of 3 front line pumpers. However, no firefighters were lost through this process.
The year Y2K saw the reigns of the department handed down to Joe Kaplanis (2000-2003) who became the sixth Fire Chief of Thunder Bay. As the demand for emergency medical calls continued to increase at this time, the department changed its name to Thunder Bay Fire/Rescue Service. This name change was made to incorporate the ever widening role that modern fire service is called upon to handle. Other changes included the introduction of the pumper/rescue trucks that combined the features of a pumper truck and a rescue truck into one unit and allowed for the elimination of 8 full-time firefighters in a strategic reorganization of the Fire Service.
For more History on the Thunder Bay Fire Rescue refer to City Archives Fire Exhibit.