Looking back on...Downey Fire Department

DOWNEY - Haygood Ardis did his best on that tragic spring day ‚àí but, in the end, the flames were just too much for anyone to fight."I was carrying a tubful of water with Freddie Robinson when suddenly the truck blew up," recalled Ardis. "The blast showered us with burning gasoline and set off the big tank trailer that was hitched onto the rear of the truck." While many people rushed to fight the spreading blaze, Ardis remembers others standing on nearby rooftops, watching in horror. The date was April 21, 1922 when a small static spark set off a gasoline tanker that was refueling Downey's main gas station, owned by Newbold and Speaker, near Downey Avenue and New Street, now the site of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. Nine were killed and 20 residents received disfiguring burns in the desperate attempts to control the flames that followed. The whole town went into mourning over the catastrophe, deciding at that moment to invest in a full-time fire department. By December 1923, the Downey Fire Protection District began to take shape. Community leaders purchased one new fire engine and hired two professional firefighters to assist and instruct the small volunteer crew that had served the community up to that time. Housed inside a makeshift station at 8313 Firestone Blvd., the new fire district, funded by Los Angeles County, would ultimately spearhead a courageous task that thousands of men and women have taken up since the pioneer days: fighting fires. Downey's local fire company, as part of the LA County Consolidated Fire Protection District, consisted of a fire chief, assistant fire chief, six part-time firemen and one chief mechanic who was responsible for the truck and team training. Another six or more men served as substitutes without pay. Local shoe store owner Carl A. Krueger served as the district's first fire chief. Sparing no expense, Krueger's first order of business would be the purchase of a new $10,800 fire truck with the words "Downey" and "Los Angeles County Fire District No. 10" painted on the side. During the fiscal year of 1928, the district received just 38 alarms, but held 72 drills in preparation for future emergencies. Focusing on fire prevention, firemen visited schools and businesses inspecting buildings for potential fire hazards. Through local advertising, town residents were urged to call the "fire department" or "phone 199" during an emergency and they did. According to the Downey Live-Wire, the causes of most Downey fires varied including the "careless burning of weeds, defective chimneys, children playing with matches, clothes near stove, overheated water heaters, short circuits, tobacco, electric wires in palm trees, and even spontaneous combustion." After several years in the Firestone firehouse, a new $40,000 station was built near the corner of Downey Avenue and Phlox Street by James Stamps, one of the 1922 gas station burn victims who later became Downey's first mayor. From the new site, the county continued providing protection for Downey with updated equipment including a 1000-gallon pumper and tank Mack truck, a resuscitator unit and the city's original American La France 750-gallon engine. In order to keep up with the growth of the community, the station soon employed a brigade of 15 full-time firefighters. In the case of multiple emergencies, the firemen called on an auxiliary force consisting of more than a dozen 16 and 17-year-old boys from Downey High School. The small group of teenagers was trained to man the station and respond to local calls when the full-time crew was overwhelmed. However, despite the proficiency of the county district, Downey, which incorporated in 1956, was soon ready to set up its own municipal fire department. With the assistance of the personnel board and the fire chiefs of Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Burbank, Robert W. Gain was selected as Downey's first fire chief. Gain, who took the helm on June 16, 1957, was given just six months to organize the fire department. After Gain completed his basic planning, a contract was awarded to Crown Coach Corp. for the delivery of four 1,250 gallon per minute pumpers. Beyond this little had been accomplished. But through the co-operation of surrounding city fire chiefs, pumpers, hoses and other fire equipment was made available. Santa Ana, Vernon, South Gate, Glendale, Huntington Park, Long Beach, and Los Angeles were generous in helping Downey during this period. Burbank and Montebello also assisted, lending sufficient radio equipment for firemen until Downey received its own. When the fire department began taking applications for new firefighters, more than 300 qualified men eagerly applied, seeing in the development of a new city the opportunity for advancement and expansion. Examinations were given and selections from the successful candidates were made. Ultimately, the Downey Fire Department would start off with 48 firemen, many of whom migrated from other local fire departments. The first major problem facing Gain during his tenure was finding a suitable place to store equipment. Downey's first fire station, the original county fire district headquarters on Downey Avenue, would serve as the department's main station for 17 years until a new Fire Station No. 1 was built at 12222 Paramount Blvd in September of 1974 . When Downey took over fire services, Stations No. 2 and No. 3 were in the construction phase. Borrowing plans from the Riverside Fire Department, Gain would pattern the new Downey stations after those in Riverside. In the interim, Trinity Baptist Church, located at Florence and Downey avenues, offered classroom facilities that would serve as Fire Station No. 3 while a garage inside the Southern California Gas Company on Washburn Road would serve as Fire Station No. 2. Today, Fire Station No. 2, now located at 9556 Imperial Hwy, and Fire Station No. 3, located at 9900 Paramount Blvd., are both still in operation, celebrating 53 years of service this year. Fire Station No. 4, located at 9349 Florence Ave., was dedicated on November 17, 1959 and also remains in service. Known as the "Father of the Fire Code" for his leadership in the development of the Uniform Fire Code, Gain also helped establish the minimum set of fire prevention standards for the city to safeguard life, property, and public welfare. On November 4, 1972, after 33 years of fire service in both Burbank and Downey, Gain retired, handing the reigns over to Assistant Chief Don Warren who served for a period of 9 months. On July 1, 1973, Battalion Chief Edwin Wood, one of Downey's original firemen, was promoted to fire chief. Wood would retire after five years on the job leaving Don Davis to assume command of the department until his promotion to city manager in December 1985. Chief Ron Irwin was then promoted to lead the department and would do so for the next 15 years, retiring in January of 2000. Under Irwin, the duties of the fire department expanded to encompass more than fire fighting and prevention. The city soon looked to the fire department in cases of search and rescue, health and hazardous materials, and emergency response to chemical, nuclear, biological threats. In 2000, Mark Sauter was named Downey's sixth fire chief, but left the post in 2008 to head the city's emergency preparedness efforts. Jeff Turner served as interim chief for more than two years until Lonald L. Croom, a 26-year veteran of the Downey Fire Department, was promoted to fire chief. Today, the Downey Fire Department consists of 85 employees providing a variety of comprehensive fire and life-safety services to the community. Altogether, the four fire stations contain four engine companies, one truck company, two paramedic squads, one basic life support ambulance, a Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) unit, and one command vehicle. From 363 fire and rescue calls in 1957 to nearly 9,000 emergency incidents each year, the Downey Fire Department has grown considerably since its inception, turning tragedy into triumph everyday when brave firefighters save dozens of businesses, hundreds of homes, thousands of lives.

********** Published: May 19, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 5