The outbreak of fire was one of the most dreaded occurrences during Chillicothe’s early history. The means for putting out a blaze and preventing its spread were limited. Firefighting was done by volunteers, at first as concerned individuals wanting to help a fellow townsman and later as members of volunteer fire companies. At the first cry of fire, men with buckets in hand raced to the scene, organized a bucket brigade extending from the nearest backyard well to the fire, and started the passage of buckets of water to be thrown on the fire.
In 1809, the city purchased its first fire engine, an apparatus which was pulled to the fire and filled with water by the bucket brigade. The water was then hand pumped through the hose onto the fire. Within 5 years, this engine was worn out and replaced with a new one. An engine house was erected on the Public Square to house the new apparatus.
In conjunction with the purchase of the fire engine, council passed several ordinances concerning fire protection. It was made mandatory that all households and businesses have fire buckets which were to be made available to firefighters when a fire broke out. Residents were also asked to place candles in windows and doorways if a fire occurred during the night time to illuminate the way in the absence of street lighting.
The law called for the appointment of a person whose duty it was, at the first cry of fire, to open the door to the engine house and then ring the courthouse bell for a period of fifteen minutes to alert the volunteer firefighters.
A volunteer fire company was organized and its numbers included the leading business and professional men in the community. Among them were the Reverend Robert G. Wilson, Presbyterian minister and former President of Ohio University; merchants, Thomas James, John McCoy, and William McFarland; and lawyers, Edward King and William Creighton, Jr.
In 1832, the city acquired a new engine and passed an ordinance authorizing and requiring citizens of Chillicothe to raise a fire company to operate the new equipment. The nucleus of this organization, which was called the Citizen Fire Company, was the earlier volunteer company. In 1839, new ladders, fire hooks, and axes were purchased, and the Hook, Ladder, and Axe Company was organized to handle the equipment.
As the city grew, additional engines were purchased and companies were organized to maintain them. By the time the era of the volunteer companies came to an end in 1879, the Rescue, Relief, Reliance, Phoenix, and Enterprise fire companies were providing fire protection in the city. Most of the engines were a suction type, and firemen on their way to a fire stopped at the nearest cistern, which were strategically placed throughout the city, to fill their engines.
Although the equipment acquired through the years progressed from a small, simple machine to larger and more sophisticated, men continued to pull the equipment to a fire. It was not until 1878 that the Phoenix Fire Company experimented with a team of horses to pull its engine. Horses were then used by the paid fire department after its organization the following year.
By the 1870’s, Chillicothe had developed to the extent that volunteer companies could no longer provide adequate fire protection. The independent companies, in fierce competition with one another, did not work well together. Furthermore, they had grown lax in caring for their equipment. In 1878, council created a Fire Department Committee to visit other cities to study and evaluate their fire departments. The committee was then to make recommendations to council for the development of a department in Chillicothe. On January 14, 1879, the committee submitted its report, and on February 26, council passed the ordinance which created the present fire department.
A new Ahrens, horse drawn, steam fire engine to replace worn equipment was received in February 18, 1880. In June, installation was completed on twenty fire alarm boxes located across the city, and four additional cisterns each holding 1,000 barrels of water were placed about the town. Engine House No. 1 was located on North Mulberry Street and No 2 was located on North High Street. They went into service in 1881 under the first city fire chief, Arthur L. Hamilton.
The improvement proved their worth when the old Frame Mill burned in April 1881 and the department was able to save the nearby canning factory. That same year, the first city fire hydrants were installed on water company lines which were supplied from a new pump house built in the city park for that purpose and a reservoir on the hill. Water could be thrown by the system to the height of the court house steeple through the leather hoses then in use. By 1883, rubber hoses were being used.
Between 1885 and 1899, fire chiefs changed about every 4 years. In 1890, to eliminate delays caused by trains at the N&W Railroad tracks, a third firehouse was built on Watt Street to protect the east end.
In spite of major improvements in fire fighting equipment, losses were unavoidable. In October 1908, Keim’s Mill at Fourth Street and the Ohio Erie Canal was destroyed at a loss of $40,000. The following year, the Segal Rag Factory warehouse in the old Miller’s Mill building was consumed, but in both cases, surrounding houses were saved.
In 1910, House No. 1 on Mulberry Street was replaced by a new Fire Headquarters on East Second Street. During 1914, truck No. 1 was replaced with the city’s first motor fire truck and Nos. 2 and 3 were motorized. By 1915, the use of the horses had stopped.
Labor problems and salary disputes occurred randomly over the next decade. In 1927, Chillicothe was financially broke, and the police and firemen received no pay in November or December. To alleviate the situation, a car was raffled off with the proceeds going to those two departments.
The year 1935 saw the beginning of emergency medical services by the fire department when firemen received instruction in first aid and artificial respiration, and an inhalator was donated by the Southern Ohio Electric Company. During the economic depression of the 1930’s when the city had limited funds, firemen provided the labor to upgrade several facilities and rebuild equipment so, by 1940, the department was up to modern standards.
In the early 1940’s, the first emergency squad of the fire department was created by outfitting an old ambulance which had been located by Chief Walter Johnson.
The following year, a group of prominent businessmen organized a volunteer fire company to assist the city department and adopted the name Reliance Fire Company after one of the last volunteer units that went out of existence in 1879. The dozen volunteers would remain outside the burning building and drag hoses, bring tools, and operate pumps, freeing firefighters to combat the blaze. The Reliance unit ceased operations in the late 1940’s.
The years 1947 to 1948 witnessed establishment of a fire prevention code. A Fire Inspector was appointed in 1959 and was soon given the assistance of an additional officer.
Equipment continued to be upgraded and replaced. In 1969, a new fire house was completed on University Drive, initially equipped with two 1940 fire trucks. The following year, No. 2 Fire Station was closed as an economy measure and it’s 1963 pumper moved to the University Drive station.
Over the years, firefighting in the city has continued to advance in methods and fire prevention, leading to increased efficiency, instruction to the public, lectures in the schools, and pursuit of excellence in the department. City firefighters have also continued to assist in many service projects in the community and the department has mutual aid agreements with other Ross County units to more effectively meet emergency needs.