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Merced Fire Department History

Old Betsy was purchased from the Stockton Fire Department and required 30 to 40 men to pull and operate it.  The engine could stream water up to 190 feet.    Old Betsy's image serves as the department's logo.  Old Betsy is permanently on display at the Merced Courthouse Museum.

  • 1872 New town of Merced is established.
  • Apr 14, 1873 A group of Merced business and property owners began meeting for the purpose of creating a volunteer fire department after learning of a large fire in the nearby town of Snelling. 
  • Nov 3, 1873 Merced Engine Company No. 1 was formed.
  • Apr 3, 1874 A Jeffers Fire Engine was purchased for $1,800 from the Stockton Fire Department and used for over 30 years.  The engine had two hose carts and 1500 feet of 2 1/2" fire hose and had to be pumped by hand.  J.A. Norvall, publisher of the Merced Express, later named the fire engine "Old Betsy", which is now on permanent display at the Merced County Courthouse Museum.
  • Apr 18, 1874 Merced Engine Company No. 1 was renamed Eureka Engine Company No. 1 with 27 charter members, who paid a $5 membership fee for the privilege of being one of its members. 
  • Sep 11, 1875 Engine house moved to county lot on 17th Street between M and N Street.
  • Jan 14, 1878 A. Johnson awarded contract to build addition (meeting hall) to Engine house.
  • Jul 16, 1879 Hook and ladder truck was purchased.
  • Jun 1883 A Silsby steam engine, named "Old Steamer" was acquired.
  • 1885  The first firehouse was built on 18th Street between Canal and M Streets for $1698.75. 

Firehouse on 18th between Canal and M Streets in 1888. Pictured right of flag: Judge CH Marks; left of flag: JM Scofield; driver, Johnnie Jones. Left rear, left to right: Bill White, George Kleinlein and Pat Griffin. Front row, Left to Right: Chris Arnoldy, George Reuter, Jack Olge, Phillip Besesen, Louis JC Wegner, 2nd Assistant; Charles Williams (1st up on engine), AR Casacia (2nd up on engine); AC Hall, Big No. 1 on hat, fire chief; Carabin Paganelli, Bill Wegner and sons (one the ground), Johnny and Willie; "Fatty" Stanton (boy in rear); Frank Tischler, Ed Sanford (with the trumpet), Fred Ware. Kids on the left: Bill and May Bedesen and boy to the right: Frank McInerny.    First firehouse on 18th Street and "Old Steamer" (Silsby Steam Engine)    1889 Fire Bell is now housed at Fire Station headquarters. Photo taken 2/9/13.

  • 1889  Merced incorporated and began using the 2nd floor of the firehouse as City Hall quarters. A fire bell cast by WT Garratt in San Francisco was donated by Charles H. Huffman.
  • February 7, 1891 The El Capitan Hose Company No. 1 replaced the Eureka Engine Company No. 1 after a disagreement with the City Trustees.  The El Capitan Hose Company No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department was incorporated into the department, after the Fire Department was established in 1949. 
  • Apr 7, 1896 El Capitan Hose Co. No. 1 responded to the fire bell due to a fire at George Kibby's barn at the corner of J Street and an alley.  Twenty five members responded from dinner tables, barber shops, clerking stations at the dry goods store and fields to the fire house on 18th street.  Some were in their best suits, other in working clothes, and some were wearing whatever they tossed on.  Dan and Prince, the two gray horses, dashed to the fire station too.  Dan and Prince's owner was paid $2.50 every time a fire occurred during the day and $5 if a fire occurred at night.  The first men to arrive, hitched the horses to Old Betsy and dashed off while the others seized the hose cart and followed along un-paved streets.  Volunteers dropped the hose into one of the wells, which were situated at various intersections.  Although the firefighters did not expect to save the barn, they wanted to keep it from spreading.  As expected, the barn was a total loss, amounted to $350, of which $200 was covered through insurance.  J.R. "Cap" Graham's assistant responded and brought a keg of beer to soothe the volunteer's smoke parched tonsils.  The practice of "Cap" providing beer as the liquid refreshment became a standard custom for many years.
  • 1906 An Ahrens Continental Steam Engine was purchased and "Old Betsy" was retired after 30 years.

  • 1907  The Fire Department moved to a new City Hall and Firehouse, which was built out of limestone, on the southeast corner of 18th and M Streets.   The old firehouse was used as a Lady's Restroom and was torn down in 1953.
  • 1907 First fire horse was purchased by Frank and Tom Harell, ice company operators.  A few years later, Grant was retired and replaced by a pair of gray horses name Prince and Dan, who were donated by James Chamberlain to pull the hose wagon.
  • 1918 First motorized fire engine, a 1918 Garford chemical engine and hose wagon was purchased.
  • 1919 A 1919 American LaFrance was purchased from the Stockton Fire Department.
  • 1928 A six cylinder 1928 American LaFrance, quadruple combination, 750 G.P.M. pumper equipped with 600 feet of 2 1/2" hose and 255 feet of ground ladders was purchased.
  • 1930 A fire destroyed the Fountain City Flour Mills by the Southern Pacific Railroad.
  • Jan 11, 1933 The El Capitan Hose Company was unable to respond to the fire at the Huffman Mansion known as the Van Horn residence, because it was located outside of the city limits.  Consequently, the El Capitan Hose Company purchased additional insurance for fire fighting outside of the city limits. 
  • 1934 A new fire alarm system was installed in October.
  • May 8, 1949 George Coolures was appointed the first full time Fire Chief when the Fire Department with paid staff was established.  The department consisted of two parts:  a regular uniformed paid staff of 13 members, which included 1 Fire Chief, 2 Captains, 1 Lieutenant, 7 Drivers, and 2 Hosemen; and the El Capitan Hose Company # 1 Volunteer Fire Department.  The volunteer fire department was summoned when the initial response of the paid department was inadequate and provided invaluable supportive service to the paid department.   Chief Coolures instituted many important internal improvements in the first year from fire fighting procedures and methods and dwelling inspections to street drills and Fire Prevention programs.  the Merced Fire Department was nicknamed "Little Stockton" Fire Department, because Chief Coolures was a captain from the Stockton Fire Department and his brother was serving as the Stockton Fire Chief.  Chief Coolures mirrored the department after the Stockton Fire Department.
  • 1949 The El Capitan Hose Company No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department with 25 members became part of the Merced Fire Department.
  • 1949 A $250,000 bond was passed, which was used to purchase new fire equipment and build three new fire stations.  Company #2 was built in 1951 at McNamara Park on 11th and L Streets and became the temporary headquarters for the Fire Department, while its main station was being built.  It housed the 1949 American LaFrance's 1000 G.P.M. pumper.  Company #3 also built in 1951 at 27th and K Streets, housed the G.M.C. 500 G.P.M. pumper.  A new civic center and fire station were erected on the former city hall and firehouse in 1952.
  • 1949  A twelve cylinder 1949 American LaFrance, triple combination, 1000 GPM pumper was purchased and replaced the 1919 American LaFrance.
  • 1949 The Fire Department  had a reduction in its total fire loss, which was attributed to increased fire prevention inspections and improved methods of fire fighting.
  • Oct 24, 1950  MFD Relief Association 1960-1968  First meeting for establishing a Relief Fund Association for the orphans and widows of the members of the Merced City Fire Department. Cief Coolures and Driver Gene Borden are the first members to set forth and get all members together to organizae the Association.  Present at the meeting werre Chief Coolures, Deputy Chief Lews, Captain Aviles, Acting CVaptain Sponhaltz, and Drivers Silva, Sale, Ferree, Crotti, Buckinhgam, Hudgins, Borden, and Hoseman Jensen.
  • 1951 Merced Fire Department became one of the first in California to have telephone fire alarms broadcast emergencies over an amplifier system so that the fire fighters in the station could hear the requests for help.
  • May 7, 1951 A twelve cylinder 1951 American LaFrance 75 foot hydraulic operated Aerial Ladder Truck with a ladder pipe for water tower operations was placed in service.
  • 1951  A six cylinder, GMC chassis, manufactured by P. E. Van Pelt, Triple Combination 1000 GPM Pumper was placed in service.
  • Mar 19, 1951 The Merced Fire Department, Merced County Fire Department, and Castle Air Force Base Fire Department responded to the 8:03 pm fire.  The fire was put under control at 10:45 pm, and was completely extinguished at 4:00 pm the following day.  Fire losses amounted to $230,000.
  • 1952  The limestone City Hall and Firehouse, was demolished due to the lack of sturdiness and the third civic center and fire station was built at the same location. 
  • Feb 15, 1952 Captain Arthur "Buck" Buckingham, who joined the department in 1946, was named the Superintendent of Fire Alarm.  Under his supervision, a new fire alarm system was installed by the Gamewell Fire Alarm Company.  With the completion of the project, the City of Merced's Insurance rating improved from a Class 4 to a Class 3, which meant a reduction of about 14% in insurance rates.
  • Jun 1952 The El Capitan Hose Company No. 1 disbanded due to a disagreement with City Council.
  • 1952 Company District Inspection Program was implemented.  This program provided an opportunity for the Fire Fighters to become acquainted with all of the structures with their jurisdiction while educating the public about the many services provided by the Fire Department.
  • 1954 The Merced Junior Fire Department program was established to teach 5th graders in Merced City about fire prevention.  The program was sponsored by the Merced County Association of Insurance Agents and developed by the Superintendent of Schools, principals, teachers, and fire fighters.  During the fiscal year 1954-1955, the Junior Firemen had inspected approximately 500 homes in the City of Merced.  A number of fire hazards had been eliminated by such efforts.  During the second year of the program, over 1000 homes were inspected.
  • 1956 The Merced Trade Club, purchased Sparky, a plastic, mechanical talking Dalmatian, to educate the public about fire safety in October.
  • 1956 During the Cold War, the Merced Fire Department instituted the Civil Defense Program to safely evacuate the citizens in case of nuclear attack.  Mobilization points and mass care centers were established just outside the 30 mile radius of Merced.  The Merced County Courthouse building (now the museum) was designated as a fallout shelter.  The Fire Alarm Operator plotted fallout patterns twice daily, to determine which way radioactive fallout would travel, in the event of an atomic bomb attack.
  • Feb  21, 1959  A six cylinder, American LaFrance, Triple Combination, 1250 GPM Pumper was placed in service.
  • Jun 1959 A 3rd Fire substation (Company 54) was added on 1425 E. 21 Street.  Contractor Vernon Fitchett completed the fire station under a $58,900 contract and firefighters occupied the fire station on Monday, June 8, 1959.  A $7,357 alarm system had been installed and a $24,000 American LaFrance truck was ordered.  The station borrowed a truck from the central station until their truck arrived.  The firefighters performed all the landscaping and it was staffed with two two-man platoons.  The "A" Platoon consisted of Captain Ted Ferree and Driver Melvin Miller.  The "B" Platoon consisted of Captain Homer Sponholtz and Driver Tom McCully.
  • Sep 25, 1959  Six cylinder American LaFrance, Triple Combination, 1250 GPM Pumper was placed in service.
  • 1961  An eight cylinder half-ton Ford pickup equipped with a John Bean high pressure unit and a 100-gallon water tank was placed in service.
  • Jan 1961 The Cooperative Fire Prevention Clean Up Campaign was implemented, whereby, with the cooperation of the property owner, the Fire Department would burn down the properties which warranted removal.
  • 1964 The Fire Department inspector, with the permission of the vehicle owner, would request that the local wrecking company, remove abandoned vehicles.
  • Sep 25, 1959  A six cylinder American LaFrance, triple combination, 1250 GPM pumper was placed in service.
  • Jan 7, 1961  An eight cylinder half ton Ford pickup equipped with a three-way radio was placed in service as a Utility Pickup.
  • Jan 16, 1965  An eight cylinder Chevrolet, four door sedan equipped with a two-way dual channel radio was placed in service as the Inspector's car.
  • Jan 10, 1968  An eight cylinder Chevrolet station wagon equipped with two two-way radios with dual channels which can send or receive City Fire, Police, County Fire, and Corporation Yard frequencies, was used by the Assistanct Chief's card and placed in service.
  • Oct 18, 1968  A six cylinder Detroit Diesel American LaFrance, triple combination, 1500 GPM pumper was place in service.
  • Dec 24, 1968  A six cylinder Chevrolet half ton pickup with compartmenized utility body which was used for communication installations and repairs was placed in service.
  • Feb 1970  An eight cylinder 3/4 ton Chevrolet pickup equipped with a John Beam high pressure unit and a 100 gallon water tank was placed in service.
  • Jun 12, 1970  A six cylinder Chevrolet station wagon equipped with a two-way dual channel radio for Fire Prevention was placed in service.
  • Feb 19, 1971  An eight cylinder Chevrolet, four door sedan for the Fire Chief was placed in service on February 19, 1971.
  • Sep 9, 1971  An eight cylinder, Detroit Diesel American LaFrance, triple combination 1500 GPM pumper was placed in service.
  • 1971 The Christmas Toy program started in the 1940's became a tradition.  During the Christmas season, toys donated throughout the year were repaired, painted, and taken to the Salvation Army for distribution.  the program was sponsored by different businesses and clubs in Merced.
  • Sep 9, 1972  An eight cylinder Detroit Diesel American LaFrance, triple combination, 1500 GPM pumper was placed in service.
  • 1974 Joe Ortiz, second fire chief of the department, was hired.
  • Jul 28, 1975 A live Marine grenade, which was part of a display board set up by the U.S. Marines Corps in the Merced Mall, exploded and Lewis Anderson, an 18 year old mall security guard, was critically burned and later succumbed from his injuries.
  • Dec 9, 1975 A fire substation (Company 52) was opened in December at 1400 Falcon Way at the airport.  The McNamara park station was closed.
  • 1977 A new fire station was opened at 800 Loughborough Drive (Company 53).  The substation on 27th and K Streets was closed and used as a training and storage unit.  It is identical to the Airport Fire Station.
  • Mar 17, 1981 Merced hotel fire occurred with estimated losses at $1.5 million, which became the first of 6 major fires occurring in a two year time span.
  • May 27, 1981 G & T Market fire.
  • Aug 4, 1981 Central Hotel fire, with $400,000 in damages.
  • Nov 30, 1981 Furniture U.S.A. store burned, resulting in $650,000 in damages.
  • Feb 15, 1982 Greenbriar Apartments burned.
  • Apr 15, 1982 Geenbriar Apartments burned a second time.
  • Feb 16, 1982 Carpet Town injured nine fire fighters and caused $160,000 in damages.
  • 1982 Chief Ortiz resigned and Ken Mitten, became Acting Fire Chief.
  • Sep 1982 Ken Mitten appointed as Fire Chief.
  • 1983 Insurance Rating changed from a Class 3 to Class 2 Fire Department, as a result of the development of a Community Fire Protection Master Plan.
  • October 17, 1987 One of the largest fires in memory was the McNamara building.  Damages were estimated at $1.75 million to the structure and contents.  59 fire fighters responded along with 6 engines, and 2 ladder trucks.
  • Oct 24, 1997 Central Fire Station and Administrative Offices are moved to 99 E. 16th Street.
  • Feb 10, 2006 A fifth fire substation (Company 55) was opened, costing $2.50 million.
  • Feb 21, 2011 Michael W. McLaughlin is appointed as the department's fourth Fire Chief.
  • Jan 31, 2014 Michael W. McLaughlin's last day as Fire Chief.
  • Feb 2, 2014  City Council appoints Michael R. Wilkinson as Interim Fire Chief, effective, February 10, 2014.
  • Feb 10, 2014 Michael Wilkinson begins serving as Interim Fire Chief.
  • Jun 30, 2014 Michael Wilkinson departs as Interim Fire Chief.
  • Jul 1, 2014 Don Long appointed as Acting Fire Chief.
  • Jan 11, 2015 Don Long's last day as Acting Fire Chief.
  • Jan 12, 2015 Shawn Henry appointed as the Merced Fire Department's fifth Fire Chief.

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