WESTERLY — On April 30, 1927, downtown residents awoke to a commotion that would change the landscape of the town forever.
Shortly before midnight, a fire erupted at the fire station on Union Street that set off box alarms and spread into surrounding buildings. The blaze completely destroyed the station and R.I. Motors on Croft Court, and damaged both the old and new town halls.
Although responders were able to save two vehicles — a ladder truck and pumper truck — the agency was forced to seek a new home. And they found one — in the Union Street building that still houses the department today.
"On Aug. 30, the Panciera property was purchased and plans were approved for a fire-proof station. The station would be constructed of red brick with granite trim, and would have four apparatus bays and one machine shop," the Westerly Fire Department website says.
As the town prepares to celebrate its 350th anniversary, it's impossible to ignore the important role that emergency services have played in the community. From storied events in each of the town's fire districts to the ongoing efforts of the nation's oldest private volunteer ambulance corps, emergency responders have helped shape the town's past, present and future.
Establishing fire services
The town may be three-and-a-half centuries old, but fire and ambulance services in the community are less than 175 years old.
Westerly fire officials said that from 1669, when the town was established, until 1845, there were no formal fire services or protection in town. For most residents, fire protection came in the form of leather fire buckets kept at their home.
In a history published to the Westerly Fire Department website, Assistant Chief Joseph Fusaro detailed aspects of the town's fire history, including how the department came to be. The first department was formed in 1845, a mere shed to house a small hand-pumped engine. In 1856, the town's first fire station was built.
During the latter half of the 19th century, fires in both Westerly and Pawcatuck were served by two engines until a fire at the Maxson and Co. Planing mill, which destroyed that business and several others, showed the need for more reliable pumping engines. In 1884, Westerly purchased two new engines — named "Protection" and "Relief" — that were capable of pumping their own water.
"This was considered to be the first fire company in Westerly," according to the website.
The town also utilized a steam-powered engine, R.I. Steam Fire Engine #1, beginning in 1869 and in 1870, and the Westerly Fire District was chartered as a means to "maintain a proper fire department." The first Board of Engineers comprised Chief Charles Maxson and assistants Henry B. Gavitt, Henry C. Card, and William P. Coy. Gavitt and Coy would each later serve as chief.
Fire services were also shaped by a fire in 1883 at P.S. Barber's Soap Works on Mechanic Street, the history states, which showed a need for ladder trucks. The fire ultimately led to donations to purchase a new wagon and helped in the formation of the Alert Hook & Ladder Company in 1884.
"Three prominent families donated the $1,250 to purchase the new wagon and it was equipped with an assortment of ladders up to 45 feet," Fusaro wrote.
By 1904, both Westerly and Pawcatuck felt a need to improve the alert system for fire response, and Gamewell fire alarm systems were installed for the first time in both communities. Each box sent a uniquely-numbered signal corresponding to a street location. The first fire alarm on the new system was received from box #71 at Pleasant and Canal Streets.
"The system had its first major expansion in 1954, which included a new numbering system," Fusaro said in a phone interview Dec. 20. "With the new system, each first number represented a different section of the community."
Today, the Westerly Fire District has 170 master boxes and 238 street boxes on the Gamewell system.
A greater need in town
Early local fire service history centers around downtown, Fusaro explained, but the turn of the 19th century brought development to other areas of the community, including in Watch Hill, Pleasant View, Bradford and Dunn's Corners.
With each development, Fusaro said, came a different incident that brought attention to the needs in the different parts of town. This often led to members of the community uniting to form separate fire districts.
"It was just a progression of things. The communities would build up, something would happen to make them realize the fire services were not adequate, and the community would do something to fix it," Fusaro said. "The first real development happened in Watch Hill back in the old hotel days."
With the community becoming a popular summer destination and several large hotels established in Watch Hill, the village began to boom in the early 1900s. As such, fire services were needed.
Town records indicate that the Watch Hill Hose and Engine Company of the Watch Hill Fire District began with negotiations between the residents of Watch Hill and the Town of Westerly in November of 1901.
The net year, the Watch Hill Fire Department was created with 12 men and a chief. By 1908, the department had acquired a hose house, and 2,000 feet of hose with assorted fittings was purchased, along with a horse-drawn wagon. The wagon was replaced by a Buick truck in 1914.
Meanwhile, need down the shoreline in Misquamicut led to the establishment of the Pleasant View Beach Fire District, incorporated in 1915. In 1929 the name was changed to the Misquamicut Fire District.
In 1916, the great fire in Watch Hill occurred. The incident was detailed during a special historical presentation at the Watch Hill Fire Department in August of this year.
Fire Chief Robert Peacock told the story of Walter H. Nash, who was serving as chief on Oct. 19, 1916, when a fire erupted in the east wing of the New Watch Hill House, which was then the premier hotel in the community with more than 100 guest rooms.
Peacock said the fire was eventually doused with the help a "little engine that could," but not before gale-force winds spread the flames quickly through the village, decimating the community.
"This was a moment that shaped who we are today," Peacock said.
By 1917, the department acquired its first motorized pumper, a 1917 American LaFrance, and built its first station.
Other town departments
The Bradford Fire District was created by an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1937. Originally a private volunteer force made up of mill employees, the district was established to provide taxing authority for fire-protection services for the many homes that were being built in that area of town.
The district, one of the smallest in Rhode Island, has more recently contracted with neighboring Dunn's Corners Fire District to provide fire-protection services to the village.
In July 1942, founding members of the Dunn's Corners Fire Department came together under the direction of their first chief, Edwin Green, to establish a volunteer fire service in the community. Within a year, the volunteer group established a home at the site of the former Dunn's Corners School at the intersection of Post and Langworthy roads, secured a truck and set up a full fire-response system.
Dunn's Corners celebrated it's 75th anniversary in September. Today, the firefighters operate from two stations and handle more than 700 calls per year, said Lt. Jeffrey Thomas, the department's training officer.
Fire services today
A lot has changed since the early days, Fusaro said. Due to a varierty of changes in technology, building materials, understanding of dynamics, response times and general community needs, the departments serve a far more hybrid role in 2018.
There are far fewer fire calls, but a much greater need for other services, including emergency medical response, car accidents, special hazards, hazardous-material removal, fire prevention and more.
"The departments are responsible for covering marinas and waterways. Westerly provides the primary coverage for Westerly State Airport. There's a lot of various training involved," Fusaro said. "We are prepared for nearly anything."
Meeting medical needs
Just a year ago, the Westerly Ambulance Corps celebrated its 100th anniversary. The corps is the oldest private volunteer ambulance corps in the U.S.
Founded in 1917 by Dr. Frank I. Payne, the Westerly Ambulance Corps Inc. has grown over the past 100 years into a department with five active ambulances and a dispatch center that boasts some of the most modern emergency medical and rescue equipment available.
The organization provides emergency 911 dispatching services for itself and 14 emergency response agencies in the region.
"Even in looking at just the technology and training, the growth within the organization and the industry has been amazing," past commander J. William Gibney said in a 2017 interview with The Sun.
Gibney recalled the days of basic advance first aid training, the only required training to become an active member.
The department was fortunate at that time to have active members who provided a wide scope of additional training, but services were largely limited to a taxi-like service that brought those in need to the hospital.
"Today, it's more like we are bringing the emergency room to them," he said.