History of the Elizabeth Fire Department

The Companies

Although some fire protection records do exist, dating back as far as 1789, they are, at best, sketchy. It appears that documentation from 200 years ago was neither as carefully written nor as zealously preserved as it is today. However, when one remembers that the first fire company was established years before the Borough of Elizabeth was incorporated or a Post Office was opened and long before there were public schools, one can more readily forgive these departed brethren.

The first company in Elizabeth, protection Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, was established on July 4, 1789 at 24 South Broad street. The village property owners, discovering that measures were needed in order to protect their holdings, banded together to form a "Bucket Brigade". Each resident in the town was required to have at least two buckets, and ladders were strategically placed in convenient locations. This company, which eventually was to become Engine Number 1, operated for over twenty years before it was dissolved. In 1837, the date from which the Elizabeth Fire Department officially traces its history, Engine Company Number 1 was reorganized. In that same year, Lafayette Hook and Ladder Company Number 1 was established at 28 South Broad street. Their first hand pumper was "Old Number 38" which was purchased from corporation yards in New York City.

The next company to be opened was Cataract Number 2, established on April 24, 1838 at 1201 East Grand Street, using Old Number 38 as its pumper, while Engine Number 1 purchased a Smith hand pumper. Engine Number 2 remained in existence until it was disbanded after talking part in the great fight between the Fire Department and the Borough Council. Engine Number 2 was reestablished in September of 1852, adopting its new name, "Rolla Number 2". Engine Number 2' s first home was on Morris Avenue, but it was soon moved to West Grant Street. When this house was torn down in 1886, in order to make way for the new Pennsylvania Railroad Station, the company resumed its original location on East Grand Street. It was here that Engine Number 2 acquired the first steam engine ever used in Elizabeth, a Smith Hand-Drawn Steamer, which remained in active service for 22 years.

Engine Number 2 was a very popular company, with long waiting lists for admissions to its ranks. This popularity, coupled with the many accounts of bravery of its members, earned the company its motto, "Rolla to the Rescue". The company held department wide records for making steam, laying hose and throwing a stream. Engine Number 2 designed the first uniforms worn by firefighters in Elizabeth. At the first Company meeting following its organization in 1838, it was decided that all men would wear blue shirts and green coats. At its next meeting, company members adopted a hat called a "Southwester", which was made of tarpaulin, had a broad brim in the back and was similar to the headgear worn by today's fishermen.

In 1841, Washington Engine Number 3 was first organized at 8 center street. It fell heir to Old Number 38, which it kept in service until 1859. This company had a precarious history, disbanding and reopening twice, until it was solidly chartered in 1868. It purchased an improved hand engine, a Lafayette Number 17, in 1868, and its first steamer two years later.

During this same time, in 1855, "Red Jacket" Engine Company Number 4 was organized. In 1884 its original hand pumper was replaced by a Button steamer.

Hibernia Engine Number 5 was organized on March 17, 1866 at 131 Wall street. The City furnished the company with a steamer in 1868 and the first team of horses was purchased in 1887. These horses, were purported to be the best trained team in the area. In fact, Hibernia Number 5 was the first company to train a horse to hitch up to a hose wagon when an alarm was received. One of this company's most prized possessions was a stuffed Irish red fox which was given to them by a resident who brought it back from a trip to Ireland.

1089 Magnolia Avenue was the first home of Jefferson Engine Number 6, which was organized in 1868. The first machine assigned to Engine Number 6 came from Engine Number 4 and lasted just over a year. Engine Number 3's hand-me-down replaced it in 1870 and in 1871 a new steamer was purchased, with a team of horses added in 1882.

During the nineteenth Century, there were only two truck companies in Elizabeth. The first of these Lafayette Ladder Number 1, was generally accepted to be the second established unit in the city after "Protection" Engine Number 1, with whom they had considerable rivalry. Its original apparatus consisted of a two-wheel frame, similar to painter's outfit, on which ladders were placed. From this hung buckets, axes and hooks. There were no ropes, and the men caught on where and as best as they could. This first truck was replaced in the late 1840's with one built by Jonathon Harrison of Elizabeth. It was a heavy, unwieldy machine, and carried huge 60 foot straight ladders. This was replaced with a truck from Pine and Hartshorne in 1856 and a Gleason and Bailey in 1892.

The second truck company in Elizabeth was the "Empire Hook and The Ladder Company", loosely organized during the time of Civil War. In June of 1868 it was disbanded by order of Common Council. The present Truck Number 2 can trace its roots to "Jackson" Hook and Ladder Number 2 which was established by 1868 at 10 Franklin Street. Like its uptown counterpart, Truck Number 2 was also equipped with a Gleason and Bailey Ladder Truck in 1892.

The Department

On August 1, 1901, at a meeting of City Council of Elizabeth, an ordinance for the "creation, control, and regulation of a paid fire department" was adopted on final passage. The Department was permitted to operate under a New Jersey statute entitled "An Act to enable cities of second class of this State to disband volunteer fire organizations and to substitute therefore a paid fire department". In accordance, Acting Mayor P. J. Ryan appointed a Board of Fire Commissioners consisting of five members, with terms of office of one to five years:

  • William T. Cox - 5 Year Term
  • William H. Rankin - 4 Year Term
  • Frederick Kurtz Jr. - 3 Year Term
  • John J. Collins - 2 Year Term
  • Jonathan B. Drake - 1 Year Term

The first regular meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners was held at City Hall on September 24, 1901. George J. Murphy was appointed permanent secretary to the Board and Deputy Chief August Gerstung was appointed Chief of the new paid department which was to begin operation as of January 1, 1902.

The personnel assigned to the new department consisted of four permanent men and eight call men per Company, for a total of thirty-seven permanent men and sixty call men. A total of twenty -two men were added between 1905 and 1908. The department continued to grow to a force of ninety-three permanent men by 1917, when call men were eliminated. At the election in November of that year, by mandate of the voters of the City of Elizabeth, the uniformed force of the Elizabeth Fire Department was divided into two platoons, necessitating the hiring of forty additional men. During World War 1, one hundred volunteer war aides rendered service to the Department from June of 1914 through December of 1918.

With the two platoon system in place, the work schedule adopted was one of 84 hours per week; three days, twenty-four hours off, then three nights. In 1935, the hours were reduced to 77 hours per weeks, with one day off coming every ten days (DDDDDNNNNN-DDDDNNNNN-). After the conclusion of World War II, a third platoon was added, and hours were reduced to 56 hours per week (DDD-NNN--). The final adjustment to the work schedule occurred between 1959 and 1964, during which time a fourth tour was added and the weekly hours were reduced to 42 hours per week (DD-NN--).

The Unions

Issues involving working conditions were usually "negotiated" in the back rooms of eateries and inns where politicians gathered. This policy was forever changed when New Jersey state legislature passed the Public Employees Relations Act in 1968. This act forced municipalities throughout the state to bargain collectively with legitimate union representatives, and to outline the terms and conditions of employment in the form of a contract. An election was held in 1971 to determine which organization would represent Elizabeth firefighters. FMBA Branch Number 9 was selected over Local Number 777 of the International Association of Firefighters and negotiated its first contract in 1972.

The Fire Officers Association was not required to stand for a consent election, but still had a legal issue to resolve. The Fire Officers and the City were at odds as to which ranks within the Fire Department should be included in the bargaining unit. The Fire Officers wished to represent all ranks, while the City believed that only Captains belonged in the bargaining unit. The Public Employees Relations Commissions ruled that the ranks of Battalion Chief and below would be recognized in the unit. In 1972, the Fire Officers joined the International Association of Firefighters as Local Number 2040.

We Remember

In 1925, money was solicited from citizens of Elizabeth for a monument to be dedicated to the volunteer firefighters who served Elizabeth from 1837-1901. The monument was a statue located at the corner of Broad Street and Rahway Avenue. Firefighter Otto Stack, who joined the Department in 1918, served as model for the statue.

When the Elizabeth police Department constructed a new headquarters facility in 1987, one firefighter noticed a memorial wall inside, dedicated to police officers killed in the line of duty. He wondered to himself, and later out loud, "Why doesn't the Fire Department have such a memorial?" Over the next two years, Firefighter Edward Dugan almost single-handedly caused a memorial wall to be constructed next to the Union County Courthouse. This wall was formally dedicated on August 12, 1989, to the sixteen heroic Elizabeth firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty.

The Dumps

The area on either side of North Avenue on the far side of the Turnpike was originally used as a dumping ground by City garbage trucks. On occasion subterranean fires would start at these sites. An engine company (or two or three) would be dispatched to "Jones Beach" (the land was owned by someone named Jones) and stay there until the fires was extinguished, sometimes in a matter of weeks. Men would be there for their night shift, go home for their "72", and, when they returned on their day shift find themselves back at the dumps.

The Floods

During the 1960's and the 1970's, the area near Engine Number 7 evolved into a civil engineers worst nightmare. Whenever there were heavy rains, the Elizabeth River would overflow its banks and inundate, the area from Morris Avenue to Parker Road and from Irvington Avenue to Trotters Lane. Motorboats would ply these waterways, and Engine Number 7's quarters could only be entered by rowboat, since there would be over 30 inches of water on the apparatus floor. The dispatchers would work at their stations in 14 inches of water, and occasionally feel a tingling sensation due to the electrical equipment. Apparatus would be "staged" in the parking lot of Immaculate Conception Church. One Deputy Chief always seemed to be asking "What time is high tide?" since he knew that the most serious flooding occurred at that time.

Captain "C's" Retirement

Captain "C" was a loveable old codger who went by the "book" - all the way. He was scheduled to retire on July 1st, and was also scheduled to be working nights on June 30th. The old Captain reported for duty, and, at the stroke of midnight, he left quarters-retired.

The "Filo" System of Firefighting

There are two generally accepted accounting methods used in inventory control. They are FIFO-First In First Out, LIFO-Last In First Out. The Department used to use FILO-First in Last Out. Our predecessors used to take great pride in being the first unit on the scene and the last to leave. The logic of this thinking has yet to be understood.

Back Taps

Prior to the availability of mobile and portable radios, communications in the Department were somewhat primitive. If an Engine was dispatched to a fire (we didn't go to incidents until 1975) and needed, help, a firefighter would run to the nearest fire alarm box and "pull the hook". If more help was needed, the Duty Chief would go to the box, open it, strike three taps on the telegraph key and pull the box. Similar codes were used for subsequent alarms. When the fire was, extinguished and the last company was leaving the scene, an officer would go to the box, open it strike the telegraph key twice. This would indicate to all fire stations that units were now available. The two taps received were referred to as "Back Taps".

Fire Prevention

In February, 1937, at the direction of Fire Chief William Kenah, the Fire Prevention Bureau was created. Two firefighters, John Riley and John Huff were originally assigned. 

The Department & the City

In the late 1970's relations between fire personnel and City officials began, slowly but surely to deteriorate. Fewer and fewer hires resulted in Engine Number 4 being closed and Engine Number 1 and Rescue Number 1 being combined into a two- piece company. Charges and counter-charges between the two sides eventually resulted in a Grand Jury investigation into Fire Department activities. This investigation found the Fire department underfunded and undermanned. It also found that liberal Department leave policies were abused by firefighters, and recommended that an independent "expert" should be brought to analyze the Department's effectiveness. The renowned "O'Hagan Report" was released in November, 1981, containing approximately 78 specific recommendations; some major some minor, some costly and many inexpensive. In the eleven ensuing years, most recommendations have been addressed. Engine Number 9 was permanently closed, manpower has been drastically increased and equipment has been updated.

Incidents of disharmony recurred sporadically during the 1980's, culminating in the low point in Department history. In April, 1982, 21 officers were demoted and 53 firefighters were furloughed for 3 ½ months. 


In October, 1907, Elizabeth hosted a Firemen's Parade that look over a year to plan. Units and apparatus arrived by rail from Rhode Island. Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. Trophies were awarded for best appearance, largest number of men in line, most handsome engine, sassiest steam fire engine, niftiest hose cart and the company traveling the farthest. Departments winning awards included Jersey City; Newark; New Brunswick; Bridgeport; Connecticut; Reading; Pennsylvania and Pecksville, New York.

1976 and 1977 were two of the happiest years in the Department's recent history. To help celebrate the 200th birthday of our country, a boat race against area Departments was organized. Logistics were complicated and took over a year to work out. Joe Heuser and Ray Zabita solved (well, most) of the problems. Ultimately, Clark, Hillside and Union accepted the challenge. The race was to follow the route George Washington took in 1789, from the foot of Elizabeth Avenue to Battery Park in New York City. Each Monomoy Surf Boat was manned by 8 rowers, 2 reserves and a coxswain/tiller. On June 5, 1976, the Elizabeth team prevailed by a wide margin.

1977 marked the 75th Anniversary of the establishment of the Elizabeth Fire Department as a paid department. To celebrate this historic event, a parade was scheduled for May 14th. The planning, under the able leadership of Tom Willard, took over 2 years to accomplish. The parade started near Engine Number 7, and marched down North Broad Street, Elizabeth Avenue and South Fifth Street to finish with a celebration in Mattano Park. Retired Chiefs Harry Jarvais, Edward Deignan and John Burns all returned to join in the festivities.

We Become (in)Famous

On December 5, 1970, a very unusual fire occurred at the Exxon Refinery in Linden. A giant explosion, followed by ignition of several storage tanks, caused structural damage to homes as far as 7 miles from the site. The incident was followed by the almost instantaneous looting of stores whose windows had been blown away. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.

The Elizabeth Fire Department attracted national attention several times, but probably never on as grand a scale as during a 57 day period during 1951 and 1952. On December 16, 1951, at 3 P.M. a commercial airline, bound from Newark to Florida, crashed on take-off and settled into the Elizabeth River near Westfield Avenue. Fifty-two passengers and the entire crew of four all perished. It was the Department's first exposure to a new life-safety problem-danger from the sky. Thirty-seven days later, at 3:43 P.M. on January 22, 1952 an American Airlines plane plunged into 310 Williamson Street, barely missing, Battin High School. Twenty civilians eventually died, including six Elizabeth residents on the ground. The last in the serious of air disasters occurred on February 11, 1952 at 12:25 A.M; when National Airlines DC-6 bounced off the apartment house at 652-658 Salem Avenue and landed in the playground behind Janeth Memorial Home. Twenty-five passengers and four residents of the apartment house perished. The Port of New York Authority closed Newark Airport for six days, while the series of crashes were investigated. The pilot of this last plane was posthumously decorated for bringing the plane down in the least life-threatening location. One other plane crashed in Elizabeth on March 18, 1970. A private business plane hit the top of natural gas storage tank on Third Avenue and ended up in the backyard of 255 Geneva street. All four occupants of the plane were killed.

At 10:54 P.M. On April 21,1980, the street box at South Front Street and Elizabeth Avenue was activated for what would eventually be regarded as the largest chemical waste fire in history. Chemical Control Corporation, at 23 South Front Street, was in the business of disposing of chemical waste, collected from various chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers. As environment regulations became more and more stringent, Chem Control was either unwilling or unable to meet the new safety standards. Barrels of waste were accumulated at the site, so that at the time of the incident, it was estimated that there were over 40,000 barrels of chemicals present. The fire raged out of control for over 10 hours, before master stream from deck guns and aerial pipes were able to contain the inferno. Units remained on the scene for 185 hours and 21 minutes. Mutual aid was provided from 9 different municipalities. Sixty-five firefighters were injured, most with long-terms symptoms and many very serious.