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The History of the Renton Fire and Emergency Services Department

[Taken from excerpts from the book, “Renton - from Coal to Jets,” written by Morda C. Slauson, and reprinted with permission from the Renton Historical Society]

When older men and women in Renton hear the words "volunteer fire department," it brings back memories of a bell ringing, men pouring out from homes, stores, livery stable, blacksmith shop, saloon and clay plant, grabbing their hats and other garb, then pulling, by hand, a two-wheeled cart to the scene of the blaze.

However few today remember the incident which prompted the organization of a volunteer fire department. This tale of the only ladies' fire brigade in Renton's history was told years later by Thomas Harries, owner of Harries Grocery which once stood on the corner of Third and Wells, housing the town's post office and telephone office for a time.

In 1899, Renton's population was about 400 and Walla Walla Avenue, now Houser Way, was the main street. Most of the folks lived on or around that street which the railroad ran alongside. On a day in November, the sparks from a locomotive started a blaze southwest of the avenue. Unfortunately, most of the men of the town were in Seattle attending a meeting of the Renton Cooperative Miners.

Folks came running to Harries store where a telephone had been installed only a few days before. Someone thought they should try to call the men in Seattle. Since a long distance call was something new and different, there was much confusion. The man finally delegated to use the phone was not at all accustomed to it and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Renton is on fire!"

His voice was heard throughout the hall and created much alarm. A recess was called for an hour and many of the delegates hurried back to Renton, but before they reached there, Jim Anderson, Chief Engineer of the Pacific Coast Coal Company, brought an engine from Newcastle and took charge of fighting the fire. He called on the Renton women to form a bucket brigade. Taking buckets and blankets from Tonkin's store, he stood the women in a line and passed water buckets from the tender. One block of houses called "Brannan’s Row" was burned to the ground; however, the houses across the alley were saved by the women's work in putting out the flying sparks with wet blankets.

Some time after this a group of men decided the growing town needed more efficient and better fire protection. They talked it over. After much consultation, Joe Wood, Sr., Jim Flynn, Tom Swift, Peter Dullahant, Harry Richmond, Jack Pritchard, and Sandy White organized the first volunteer fire department. With Pritchard as Chief, they recruited about 60 men during the first year, although not all were active members.

Harry Richmond served as Chief for a short time, succeeded by Flynn and then Wood who took the job as head Chief in 1903 and served until his death in 1932. During these first years, members bought all their own equipment and supplies.

Present day residents should know that fifty years after its beginning, there are members of the volunteer force still alive and living in Renton. Their names should be remembered: Emmon Beil, Ed Cross, Robert Cross, Clarence Dullahant, Earl Lawrence, Erland Lundberg, Charles McGarrigle, Robert McNabb, John Neal, Alden See, Sr., Ross Sherlock, James Toman, Hugh White, and Ernest Tonda.

Dances, smokers, boxing meets and other sports events were held to pay for equipment. From 1905 to 1910, the volunteers sponsored a football team which played teams from various other towns in Washington and British Columbia. By hard work, the men raised $500 to pay a coach, and Erasmus Smithers loaned them his pasture for a playing field.

These athletic exploits were celebrated in grand style at a banquet on April 9, 1910, according to a long article in The Observer, an early Renton newspaper which called itself, in black type, "the niftiest small city paper published anywhere in the world."

According to the reporter, "Friday evening over 40 of the young men of Renton gathered around two long tables at the Hotel Melrose to celebrate the victorious return of the R.V.F.D. athletes from the Vancouver, B.C. meet. The tables were beautifully decorated with flowers and the dining room was hung with streamers of red and blue, the colors of the club."

"A full course banquet was served, after which Bill Guernsey, who acted as toastmaster, introduced Joe Wood, who presented M. Rees, Frank Vaise, and Thomas Smith with golf medals from the club for their work as its representatives at the recent tournament."

After all this description, the reporter neglected to state what the three had done in Vancouver. However, Clarence Dullahant remembers that Vaise had won the northwest championship in boxing; Rees was his manager and Swift his trainer.

Eventually, baseball and basketball teams replaced football. Other events sponsored by the volunteers in early years included a dance on the Saturday before Christmas, picnics for firemen and their families, an annual banquet for the wives, and a 4th of July parade and celebration at Liberty Park. World War II ended the latter and it was never revived.

Some memories of fire fighting in the days of the volunteers have been contributed by Dail Butler Laughery who grew up in North Renton and now lives in Dayton, Washington. Since her father, Adrian L. Butler, was one of the volunteers, she says the entire family was very fire conscious.

"One hot day in summer, I think it was 1909," says Mrs. Laughery, "the bells rang all over town, meaning there was a big fire some place. We could see the hose carts being pulled over the bridge across the Cedar. Grandmother called my aunt, Melba Butler, who was working on the town switchboard and asked her where the fire was. We learned it was at Pacific Car & Foundry only eight blocks away."

"We all turned and ran immediately. I can still remember the warm dust of Park Avenue on my bare feet. Then we could see the flames and such a fire as it was! Red, yellow and orange flames raced along the timbers, sending great clouds of smoke over the valley. The insulation burned off of the copper wires, producing some great fireworks."

"The hose companies worked hard, but most of the buildings burned to the ground before they could get the fire under control. It was a terrible loss to the young company, but they rebuilt and went on to become the big, prosperous firm they are today."

In early years when all traffic was horse drawn, the volunteers decided to furnish cold drinks not only to the horses, but also to dogs and citizens. They raised $300 and bought an iron drinking fountain with a replica of Chief Seattle's head as ornament. This was presented to the city on July 4, 1910 by a committee of four: Joe Woods, Sr., Chief, Peter Dullahant, Dave Boisseau and Archie Adams. Over the years it acquired the name of "Iron Mike" and was moved to the Wells Street station in 1915 and to its present location by the main fire station in the 1950's.

Small hose carts were stationed at various locations in the town to assist volunteers. The first fire station in Renton was a small wooden building on the northwest corner of Third and Main, housing a two-wheeled cart and 500 feet of rubber hose. In 1908, this equipment was moved to a building on Wells between 2nd and 3rd and a chemical cart was added. This building was later moved to the high school grounds and used as a manual training classroom; then it was moved to Williams Street and is today the American Legion Hall. A brick building to house both the City Hall and fire station was constructed on the same site on Wells and used from 1923 to April, 1942.

During these years new equipment was added. Since rubber hose was heavy and hard to handle, it was replaced by rubber-lined linen hose. The chemical cart contained a 40 gallon tank, 100 feet of one inch hose, a few hand lights and ladders. It was pulled by the men. In 1916, a four-wheel cart with hose, ladders, nozzles, lanterns and extinguishers was bought.

In 1923 came the first motorized equipment. A used Model-T Ford was converted into a fire truck by Oscar and Herman Priebe, owners of the town blacksmith shop, and various other Fire department members. When completed, this formed a combination hose and 40 gallon chemical tank truck with ladders and extinguishers.

A triple combination pumper with the capacity of 450 gallons per minute was purchased in 1927. This pumper was the pride of the department and, restored by Renton firefighters, has been used in recent years for parades, fire prevention demonstrations, and other activities.

In April of 1942, the fire department moved to a new concrete building at the corner of Houser Way and Mill Avenue which was financed by the City and the W.P.A. This served as the City’s headquarters station until May, 1969 when the administrative staff moved to the new city hall. Of course, much new equipment was added during those years, particularly during World War II.

Since the government built a large housing project outside the City to house Boeing workers, it was necessary to add a second fire station with additional men in the fall of 1943. This Renton Highlands station and personnel became part of the Renton Fire Department on January 1, 1946 when it was relinquished by the government.

In early years, fire alarms were given by pounding on a three foot triangle hung from a light pole in front of the station. Two years later, a bell was mounted on two poles. This was moved later to a tower on top of the station, then to the top of the city hall. This bell was last used in 1922, although for a few years afterward it announced special meetings and gave the firemen the location of fires by a certain number of taps, indicating different parts of town. In December 1944 the bell was placed on the tower of the new fire station. A 3-1/2 horse-power fire siren was bought in 1923. This was turned on from the central telephone office. Now the telephone number 911 is used to report fires in the City.

With continued growth and more territory to be covered, the department installed two-way radios on all its equipment. The first units went into use the latter part of 1946. With these, the fire department can also keep in touch with the police department.

To return to early days, it was 1908 when the volunteers decided to secure a 50 year charter from the City whereby the City became responsible for the station and all its equipment. However, the department remained entirely volunteer until January 1, 1944 when the City voted to change to a paid department of five men, consisting of a chief and four firemen.

These men were to be on duty 24 hours a day. Added to this staff were about 27 volunteers who were called whenever necessary. In 1945, two more paid firemen were added. As the City grew one or two new men were added each year until the department reached its present size of 110, including the Chief, two Deputy Chiefs, Fire Prevention Bureau, Training Division and clerical staff. Three platoons man the five stations.

Chiefs of the department after Joe Wood, Sr., were: Clarence Dullahant, 1923-39; Ed Burrows, 1939-41; Joe Wood, Jr., 1941-45; Floyd Lawrence, 1945-63; M.C. "Scotty" Walls, 1963-74; George Williams, 1974-76; Dick Geissler, 1977-83; A. Lee Wheeler, 1983-2006; I. David Daniels, 2006-09; and Mark Peterson 2010 to present.

The great change over the years is noted in comparing Chief Dullahant's 1935 report to the City Council with that submitted by Chief Wheeler in 1996. Dullahant reported a total of 15 alarms of which five were first aid, and a total loss from fire of $3,667 during the year.  Chief Wheeler's annual report shows that there were 7560 calls, now labeled responses. Of these, 4921 were first aid (or EMS) calls. Total fire loss was $1,349,139.

(End of excerpts)

In recent years, Renton Fire Department has changed its name to Renton Fire and Emergency Services Department to better represent all of the services provided.  The Department now contracts with King County Fire Districts 25 and 40 to provide emergency services.  The Renton Fire and Emergency Services Department has grown to 161 members, including the Chief, two Deputy Chiefs and an Emergency Management Director.  The Department is divided into four sections; the Office of the Chief, Community Risk Reduction, Safety and Support Services, and Response Operations.  Three platoons staff six stations 24 hours a day with a minimum of 29 first responders.  Renton Fire and Emergency Services Department currently serves over 118,000 citizens.

In 2010, the Department responded to 13,056 calls for service. Seventy-seven percent of those calls were emergency medical calls with emergency medical technicians arriving on scene within 6 minutes and 58 seconds, 90 percent of the time. Two percent of calls are fires with an engine arriving on scene in 7 minutes and 31 seconds, 90 percent of the time.