The New Brunswick Fire Department was formally organized in 1764 when the first Bucket Company was put into service. Twelve years later, two engines were purchased and became parts of the ‘Upper and Lower Companies’.
Staasts Van Dursen was at the head of the department, or what we now call ‘chief’. John Dunham was foreman of the upper, and James Schureman of the lower company.
The earliest recorded fire in New Brunswick occurred on the night of February 17, 1741, when the home of Philip French and its entire contents were destroyed. A fire on April 14, 1768 fanned by high wind, destroyed five homes, a bake shop, a bottling establishment and a copper shop. The situation during the fire became so desperate that the firemen, aided by the military and the citizenry, had to tear down adjoining buildings to stop the progress of the flames to starve out the fire.
However, the worst came in 1796, when a large fire wiped out nearly the entire city. The damage left by this fire was so great that the state appropriated $5,000.00 for the relief of the sufferers, a phenomenal sum for disaster aid at that time.
Washington Engine Co. #1 was organized October 11, 1795. During the early years of this company there was no apparatus, but members were each furnished with a large bucket.
Their first hand engine was destroyed in a big fire on the city docks. In 1867, their first steam engine, a Brutton, was put into service and was considered the finest engine in this part of the country. In 1871, this engine won a medal at the Waverly Fair in competition with engines from Jersey City, Newark, and Elizabeth. Later the Brutton engine was replaced by a Metropolitan. Washington Engine Company #1 was the first to have horses draw its apparatus.
Members of the New Brunswick Fire Department’s 4th Platoon
The Raritan Company was first organized as a hook and ladder company in 1795. In 1803, it was reorganized as Engine Company #4. Raritan was the last fire company to use a hand engine in the city, and in 1882 got its first steamer, a Dennison, but it was not satisfactory, and was changed for a Clapp & Jones, and then a LaFrance.
Neptune Engine Company #2 was organized in 1796, using buckets and hand engines until years later their first steamer, a Jeffries, was put into service. In 1888, it was exchanged for a LaFrance, and on September 18, 1888 was used for the first time at a fire in the First Presbyterian Church, this engine was used for the last time at a fire at the Union Club on April 20, 1914.
Phoenix Engine Company #3, was organized in 1798. The hand engine had brakes on the side and a condensing box at one end, with a goose-neck attachment. It had 6 cylinders and was the largest engine in the city. The company’s first steamer was an Amoskeag, which was put in service in 1865, and used for 37 years, being replaced by a Metropolitan in 1902, in use until July 1, 1914, when the volunteer department was replaced by a paid department.
In 1804 the council voted to appropriate $400.00 for a new engine with some left over so that the firemen could have ‘one for the road’ after a night at work on the fire lines.
Protection Engine Company #5 was organized around 1817, reorganized again in 1852, and used hand engines until its first steamer, a Haupt, was put in service. In the fall of 1885, the company got a Silsby.
In 1813, there were 24 wells in the city for use in quenching flames. In 1818 more water was needed and consequently 15 more wells were ordered dug bringing the city’s total to 39.
The term ‘Bagg Man’ came into being in 1821. Council minutes in that year show that five ‘Baggs’ were procured for the removal and safe keeping of the property at fires and that an official known as the ‘Bagg Man’ was charged with the safe keeping of the ‘Baggs’.
The 1820’s also saw other important events occur in the Fire Department’s history. One of these was the purchase for $32.00 of a wagon to carry hooks and ladders to the fires. The wagon was also used as a hearse to bury the city’s indigent dead. The city also purchased 90 hats costing $2.00 each for the firemen.
The Hook and Ladder Company was organized in 1835. At first this company was a bucket brigade, later procuring a truck, which it used until 1860. In 1867, a new truck was bought. In 1896, a larger truck was placed in service and used until it was replaced by a Robinson Motor Truck.
Liberty Hose Company was organized July 13, 1853, first using an old horse carriage formerly belonging to the Phoenix Hose, and then a new carriage was procured in 1867, being kept in service until 1895, when a horse drawn wagon, the first in the city, was put in use. In 1902, a larger hose wagon, using a team of horses, was obtained. In April 1914, the hose wagon was replaced by a Waterous Motor Apparatus. This apparatus was used for a time by the paid department. The name Liberty Hose had been changed to Engine Company #7.
Hibernia Fire Company #6 was organized September 14, 1865. It started with a hand engine, which was replaced by a steamer, a Dennison, in 1871. Later a LaFrance was placed in service and used by the company until the volunteer department was disbanded.
In the early 1900’s the volunteer department was composed of 493 men, fifty men to each of the six engine companies, 20 men to each of the hose companies attached to the engine companies, 40 men to the truck company, and 30 to the Liberty Hose, with a chief and 2 assistants.
Formerly the members of the six engine companies, the truck company and Liberty Hose received $10.00 per year for their services. The hose boys received nothing. Later the firemen were given $12.00 per year. At one time there was also an exemption of taxes on $500.00 worth of property, which was granted to those members in the department owning property.
Several members of the volunteer department were killed in the fire service. Among them were William Van Arsdale, of No. 3, William Robotham, of No. 1, and James Fisher and John Thomas of Liberty Hose. Chief John D. Pierce, of No. 2 was taken sick from the fire service and died after serving only four months as chief
On March 28, 1912 steps were taken towards the formation of a paid department with the appointment of Harry J. Francis as the first paid chief and Louis Sass as a paid assistant chief on a part time basis. The paid department was installed on July 1, 1914 which ended volunteer service in New Brunswick after 150 years. The department operated on a one platoon system with each firemen working a twenty one hour day. They received one hour off each for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Conditions improved further and on January 16, 1920, the two platoon system went into effect. The firemen’s work week was reduced to eighty four hours a week. At that time the department consisted of five engine companies and one truck (ladder) company.
In June 1947, Edgar Oakley became the first African American to become a city firefighter. 16 years James M. Carman, also an African American was appointed. Carman eventually became the city’s first Fire Director.
In 1947 the fire department went to a fifty six hour work week by adding a third platoon. At that time the department had four engine companies which were engines #1, #3, #4, and #5 and one truck company which was Ladder #1. The department also maintained a squad truck, two ambulances, a generator truck and an outboard motor boat for water emergencies.
During the late 1950’s the department replaced the aging fire alarm system with a ‘Gamewell’ system which consisted of four hundred and ninety fire alarm boxes strategically
located throughout the city.
In 1964 the department hosted the New Jersey Exempt Firemen’s Association Convention. A large parade was held in the city to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the New Brunswick Fire Department.
In 1965, Epifanio Colon, became the first Hispanic to become a city firefighter.
In May of 1972, Engine Company #2 was dedicated. The station is located on Burnet Street in the Rutgers Village/Edgebrook section of the city.
On January 1, 1974 after intense negotiations with the city the department commenced working a forty two hour work week with a compliment of 106 firefighters. Engine Company #3 on Dennis Street was closed and a new platoon, the 4th platoon, was added.
In the 1970’s the ambulance service which had been run by the department was transferred to a private agency and eventually taken over by the city’s two hospitals (Middlesex General Hospital and St. Peter’s Hospital).
Early in the 1980’s the ‘Gamewell’ fire alarm system was removed and replaced by the 911 system. The fire department dispatch center at fire headquarters was removed and the dispatching was taken over by the police department with civilian dispatchers.
In October 1999 the department received its first Thermal Imaging Camera, a sophisticated device which translates heat energy into a visual image assisting the users in seeing through dense smoke and darkness thereby cutting down on search time. The camera valued at $15,000.00 was a gift from Johnson & Johnson. The department currently has four cameras, one for each front line apparatus.
In 2001 the department responded to 3,500 incidents. Every new firefighter since 1989 has become an emergency medical technician, providing first response for all medical emergencies. Seventy five percent of our firefighters are now EMT’s and certified in defibrillation. The department has four defibillators for cardiac emergencies.
On October 23, 2001, Suzanne T. Gardner became the City’s first female firefighter when she was sworn in by James M. Cahill, Mayor of the City of New Brunswick.
The department presently operates out of three locations. Fire Headquarters on Joyce Kilmer Avenue, houses the Administrative offices of the department, Engine Company #1, Ladder Company #1 and Rescue #3. Engine Company #2 is located on Burnet Street in the Rutgers Village/Edgebrook section of the city and Engine Company #5 is located at the corner of Bartlett and Wyckoff Streets in the 6th Ward.
Presently the New Brunswick Fire Department is comprised of 1 Director, 5 Deputy Chiefs, 8 Captains, 8 Lieutenants, 56 Firefighters and 1 secretary. The Fire Prevention Bureau is comprised of 1 Fire Official and 2 Fire Prevention Specialists.