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History of the Oneonta Fire Department PDF Print E-mail

Wirt Knox Mfg. Co. Philadelphia, PennThe Oneonta Fire Department was established in 1924 as an all volunteer department made up of men in the community.

Much about the early fire department is unknown, however, historians say that the fire department was founded after the first municipal water system was organized and installed for the town. The first water tank was constructed on Shuff Mountain and this created the hydraulics needed to supply pressure throughout the town. Shortly there after, the first firefighting apparatus was acquired. It was a hand drawn, wooden spoke fire tender or “hose wagon,” built in the early 1900’s by Wirt and Knox Manufacturing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This hose tender was typically pulled by the firemen to the closest hydrant near the fire and hoses were attached to a fire hydrant, directing the water pressure toward the fire.

Ironically, due to a fire that destroyed the Oneonta Town Hall in 1930, very little else is known about the Oneonta Fire Department until the year 1938.

It is believed that in the later years of the 1930’s the booming Champion Iron Ore Mines in East Oneonta furnished the town with a fire truck to utilize and to protect its investments.

Records indicate that in 1938, the Oneonta City Council began paying Chief D. Elbert (Ellie) Harris a salary of $3.00 a month and paid eight men submitted on a list to the council $1.00 per call. Chief Harris led his crew through many test throughout the following years. At this time, there were few fire departments throughout the very rural Blount County area, so the department was called to respond for miles outside Oneonta. In 1945, Chief Harris’s salary was raised to $5.00 a month.

After Chief Harris’s term came Chief Filo Hyde, in January of 1945. Chief Hyde had been a member of the fire department for several years before succeeding to chief. Chief Hyde led the department forward purchasing various tools and equipment for the fire department including helmets, coats and boots from W.C. Darley Equipment.

At the end of 1945, the Fire Chief’s salary was raised to $9.00 a month and each firefighter received $4.00 per call.

On February 4, 1949 the Oneonta City Council purchased what was thought to be the first Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (Scott Air Packs) for the department for $394.00. Seeing the need for additional fire protection, in 1952 the City Council approved to provide a salary for a night-time firefighter, keeping someone at the ready during night-time hours.

Over the next couple of years, two major accomplishments took place. The town purchased a 1951 Ford Jacco 500gpm fire truck and equipment to furnish it. The construction of a new city complex on Third Ave East would included a single bay for the new fire truck. Chief Hyde would continue to lead the department to growth for the next eight years until he retired in 1960.

Promoted from within, records indicate that Verbon Elrod became the next fire chief and led the department onward.

Firefighters were called by a large civil defense siren mounted on a telephone pole out side the fire station and was sounded during the event of a fire to alert the firemen to come to the fire station.

During the late1960’s the first Oneonta Fire Department’s Women’s’ Auxiliary was created. Its purpose to provide support for the firemen by bringing food and drinks when out on fires and to raise money for needed equipment and other items. Throughout the years the Fire Department Auxiliary was critical in raising funds for a generator with lights, air chisels and a port-o-power for extrication. They would also begin organizing the Fire Department Christmas party held every year for members and their families to fellowship.

In December 1971 a new police station and fire department was built behind the City Hall Complex on Second Street North. This new station provided room for two fire trucks to be parked inside and gave firefighters a kitchen and a bedroom for staying day and night at the fire department.

Still when the call came out, Chief Elrod responded from a local gas station on the corner of Hwy 75 and US 231 assembled at the fire station to don what fire protective clothing they had, typically a plastic helmet, an asbestos fire coat and a pair of rubber boots and would head in the direction of the smoke.

According to Chief Elrod’s family, there were many nights that Chief Elrod would leave the garage where he worked all day and stayed the night at the fire station to protect the town. And rightly so, during Chief Elrod’s term as fire chief, his administration saw five historic fires that brought the city to its knees.

First, was the destruction of the Fred Peek’s Ford Motor Company, where the building, several vehicles and a gasoline truck were engulfed in flames. Next, was the Golden Egg Company, an egg processing plant near the “Old High School,” that was less than five years old and had just been recently renovated. The Egg Plant was rebuilt, yet suffered loss again by fire with the cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On September 8, 1973, the entire downtown area was evacuated when threatened by the third major blaze at the Standard Oil Distribution Site along Railroad Ave. eighty-thousand gallon tanks of gasoline were burning along with a gasoline truck and two railroad box cars.

Some months later, the Bargain Town discount department store would become the next victim suffering a loss of one hundred-thousand dollars just to the building alone. And finally, the fifth and most expensive fire began behind the Buy Wize Discount Store on First Ave and extended into Prickett’s Men’s Shop and on to Lorch’s Jewelers engulfing the entire block. Some of the departments answering the call were Cleveland, Altoona, Albertville, Guntersville, Gadsden, Blountsville, Arab and Center Point.

Chief Elrod reevaluated the Fire Prevention codes that had been adopted several years ago and launched a Fire Prevention Awareness Campaign and initiated business inspections for safety hazards. In August, 1979 Chief Verbon Elrod retired with a Resolution from the City of Oneonta honoring his achievements within the Oneonta Fire Department.

Chief Billy Hawkins was named as interim Fire Chief.

December 1979, Bobby Box was named the next Fire Chief. Chief Box would slowly bring EMS into the fire service in 1980 by having each fireman certified in first aid and CPR. The same year Chief Box and Members of the Oneonta City Council would bring in an outside evaluator, Captain Frank Drake, of the Birmingham Fire Department and an instructor for the Alabama Fire College to evaluate the Oneonta Fire Department to see how it measured up to departments its own size. The department would receive average marks. Chief Box would depart as chief in 1981.

Oddly, from 1981 to 1983 the Oneonta Fire Department operated without a Chief Officer. During this time, three full-time shift officers operated their own shifts and the department carried on. The department would be the host to the first county-wide SCBA cascade system and be the re-filling point for the entire Blount County Fire Association. In much surprise, in March of 1983 the members spec out and purchased a 1983 Custom Built Pierce Dash fire truck with a 1000gpm and 750gallon tank

In June of 1984, the fire department would have a new chief at the helm. Serving in the United States Air Force and Retiring from the City of Birmingham, Charles R. Montgomery would become the next fire chief. Chief Montgomery would bring stern management and exceptional ideas of Fire and EMS strategies to the Oneonta Fire Department. He began to reform the Oneonta Fire Department. He saw a tremendous need for training within the neighboring departments and the county as well, since these were the very departments he depended on to assist Oneonta in the event of a significant fire. He began basic firemanship courses and eventually began teaching the State Volunteer Firefighters Certification through the Alabama Fire College certifying members of the community with baseline knowledge of fire behavior. Volunteers from across the county were eager to learn and welcomed “most” of his ideas and experience.

Being one of the first Paramedics in the state, Chief Montgomery would bring yet another inspiration to the forefront, advanced first aid. This advanced training is now known as Emergency Medical Services or EMS. Montgomery would encourage members of this department to receive training and become certified as Emergency Medical Technicians. These firemen cross-trained in emergency medicine could now assist victims injured in traffic accidents and other medical related emergencies. He acquired specialized tools such as hydraulic cutters and spreaders in aiding in extrication of crash victims, pressurized airbags that could lift tons at a time, and cardiac monitors for evaluating heart rhythms on patients with medical problems.

Seeing the need for additional resources within the city he headed the committee to develop the first Mutual Aid / Automatic Aid agreement. This pre-signed agreement would activate predetermined resources into the city depending on what was needed from neighboring departments.

He would push his structured fire department through a series of accomplishments to include reducing the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating down to a class 4, which for a department of its size this was significant, considering at that time there were only two firemen on a 24 hour shift at a time to cover the entire coverage area. He would ask the City Council to create a full-time fire inspector position to conduct regular business inspections. He, along with the members of the East Blount Fire District, would construct a training field designed especially for practicing routine tasks of the fire service. This facility included a burn building, a classroom, a drill tower and mock-up trailers with scenarios for firefighting and hazard mitigation.

He would increase the Oneonta Fire Department fleet to Two Rescue Mini-pumpers, Three Engines and a 85 foot Ladder Truck.

He would convince the city council to add another person per shift for a total of three firefighters per shift. He hired the first female firefighter in Oneonta Fire Department history.

Chief Montgomery saw a special need for the area and embarked into Hazardous Materials mitigation. He would oversee the development of the Blount Count Special Operations Team (Blount County HAZMAT). This team, from the ground up would build their own trucks, make or acquire their own equipment, and research and train in fields such as Hazardous Chemicals, Train Derailments, High Angle Rescue, Confined Space Rescue and Trench Rescue just to name a few. The fleet today includes a stocked Hazardous Materials Decontamination truck, a Technical Entry and Mitigation truck, a Technical Rescue (Medium Rescue) truck, and a 35 foot Mobile Command Center complete with a host of radio communications, satellite phones, internet, Closed Circuit and UHF/VHF T.V.

Chief Montgomery would see in his administration the second Oneonta Station (Station 13) be opened in the newly annexed Limestone Springs off County Highway 1. Chief Montgomery divided his staff and would man the Limestone Springs station with part-time firefighters to provide the best Fire and EMS protection throughout the entire city limits.

Montgomery would oversee new SCBA packs bought and a New SCBA cascade and Cascade Air Compressor added to the inventory. He would see a reduction in staff brought by tough Mayor and City Council restraints, losing the fire inspector’s position. However, pushed on and holding his head high, lead the department forward training and never letting the protection of the citizen’s fall.

In June of 2005, Chief Montgomery would finally get the chance to replace 30 year old fire trucks when the City Council allowed him to spec, bid and buy two 2006 Crimson International Cab/Chassis Fire trucks with 1500gpm pumps and 1000 gallon tanks. Each truck would be delivered with hose and new equipment to utilize.

In August 2006, Chief Charles R. Montgomery would retire after 22 years of service to the Oneonta Fire Department. He received a Resolution form the Alabama State House of Representatives for his accomplishments for the City of Oneonta Fire Department and for Blount County.

The Oneonta City Council unanimously voted to promote again from within the department and David C. Osborne would become the next Fire Chief for Oneonta. Having retired from the City of Gadsden, and working up through the ranks to Assistant Chief at Oneonta, Osborne would continue many of the traits the Chief Montgomery before him began. Osborne would hire of three additional firefighters, making the part-time position at Limestone Springs a full-time position and increased the staffing from four persons per shift to five by re-instating the fire inspector’s position and having a person on-call at night.

He would approach the city council and get approved funding for new complete sets of personal protective gear for all the firefighters and replace old and damaged medical equipment. He launched an extensive public awareness campaign on fire safety and the public awareness about the Fire Department itself.

Chief Osborne retired in April of 2013 with 18 years of service to the City of Oneonta for a total 40 years in the Fire Service.

Next, would come Chief Arthur Willis, another native of the Birmingham Fire Rescue Service, Chief Willis retired from the City of Birmingham after 26 years of service to the BFRS before accepting the position of Fire Chief at Oneonta. Chief Willis continues the professionalism of the Oneonta Fire Department and carries them to the next level.