From the Past
Early History of the Alcoa Fire Department
The city of Alcoa began as a company town and was settled and grew along with its sister city, Maryville, through the 19th century. Given its formation as a company town, a great deal of history originates with the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) for which the city got its name.
And so the organization of the Alcoa Fire Department began as the result of this growing industrial city and the need for a fire department to serve the citizens of Alcoa. Starting as a volunteer group, employees of ALCOA formed the first Alcoa firefighting department in 1942.
This served well, until that fateful day came when the crew had hauled its little hose carts to a fire, which unfortunately blazed near shift change time. When the quitting whistle blew at ALCOA, the firefighters quit too! They rushed to board their buses - this was early in World War II, gasoline was rationed and other means of transportation besides the work buses were extremely scarce. Not many persons would risk walking home or being stranded to fight a fire on a volunteer basis.
Located in a garage at the rear of the old municipal building on Hall Road the volunteers parked their first truck, a 1940 Ford, 500 gallon pumper that was purchased from ALCOA in March of 1942. The first permanent Alcoa Fire station at 1050 Springbrook Road started construction in 1942 and completed in 1943.
F. Loyd Baker served as chief from 1942 until 1958 and also headed the street department for the city. Fred Griffith, one of the first drivers, was chief from 1958 until 1966 and the department continued to operate as a volunteer department after moving into the new station. Elmer Trentham was the department’s first paid fireman and it was Elmer who trained the next city employee, Epheriam Deathrow Chambers to become a firefighter. After being hired only six months beforehand and earning $32.00 per pay day he was now the new firefighter after three days of training.
Epheriam, better known by his middle name Deathrow was twenty-five years old when he came to work for the Alcoa Fire Department on September 4, 1950. Born on March 13, 1925 he would work the next forty years as a fireman until his retirement on his birthday March 13, 1990.
For fourteen years, Deathrow, his wife Zelma and their son lived in the upper story of the fire hall on Springbrook Road. The city provided him with uniforms and his early wages went to $75.00 per pay day. Raises came a nickel at a time.
Duties for a one man operation fire department was to maintain the fire engine, equipment and be available to answer the call and drive the engine to the scene in case of a fire. Pick axes and a hose reel mounted on a fire truck were the majority of the early firefighting tools available.
When a fire call came in, Zelma Chambers and the telephone operator at ALCOA would start calling the volunteers and telling them where they needed to respond. It was not unusual for Deathrow to get to the scene and have to wait for help in firefighting until the volunteers arrived.
Many changes were made in the 1960’s. The department saw personnel being hired to man the department full time and the Chambers family moved out of the fire station around 1964. Henry Malone was the next full time employee to be hired and was Deathrow’s relief.
During this time the family living quarters was split so that the paid firemen could live at the fire hall and two shifts were formed working a 48 hour on and 48 hour off rotation. Chief Don Bledsoe served the department from 1966 - 1967 and continued with the city as Public Works Director until his retirement.
Manpower, training and equipment in the 1960’s were not at all what they are today. No personal radios were used and the ones in the Station were on the same frequency used by the police department. A command system had not been established except for the Chief as head of the department. It was just understood that the older and more experienced firefighters took charge over the younger men. There were two Captains and two Engineers in charge of the two shifts.
There was only one air pack in the department and it was debatable on its efficiency. The men wore black rubber bunker coats, pants, hip boots and a black helmet for firefighting. Their duty uniform consisted of gray pants, white shirts with their name on them and they were picked up by a cleaning service to be laundered. The first dress uniform with a badge was worn around 1968 and was a black coat with brass buttons, black pants and a blue shirt.
There was no air-conditioning in the fire station on Springbrook Road until the late 1960’s when a used window unit that came from a city office was installed. Central heat and air was installed around 1977. Hospitalization, retirement and sick time benefits were implemented in the 1960’s and raises amounted to an extra $25.00 a month. Later these would change to a percentage.
Personnel were not allowed to leave the fire station except for training or a fire call. Other than maintaining the vehicles and equipment maintenance their chores were to clean the station and mow the yard surrounding the station.
The firemen were allowed to play cards, games and sit outside when not performing their duties. At this time there were 150 or less fire calls a year but this was about to change with the purchase of a new firefighting rescue tool.
Officers were organized in 1967 by Chief Clarence Story who served from 1967 - 1979. More training was initiated with the purchase of the first set of jaws for vehicle extrication and rubber coats and pants were handed down to the volunteers and new Nomex, flame resistant protective clothing was issued to the firefighters.
In 1972 a new fire station was built at 271 Joule Street. More personnel were hired at this time and Station 2 was manned by two men and Station 1 by five men.
There were now three rotating shifts working 24 hours on and 48 hours off. It was during this time when Chief Clarence Story who served as Chief from 1967 - 1979 initiated more department training when the first set of jaws was purchased for vehicle extrication around 1975.
Rubber coats and pants were handed down to the volunteers and new Nomex, flame resistant protective clothing was issued to the firefighters. Personnel wore coveralls for all work duties and uniforms consisted of black pants, black shirts and light blue shirts for the Captain on duty. A new benefit of longevity pay started around this time based on years of service and an extra shift of time off was given after a number of days worked.
Citizens needing the fire department still called the station for assistance. The radio system consisted of one Motorola base unit in the station, one portable radio to carry around and one radio in the fire truck. Off duty personnel and volunteers were notified at their homes by telephone. A red telephone with no dials or numbers set on the watch desk and was programmed to ring the home phone numbers of all personnel. When the handset was picked up and three switches were activated it would ring one long continuous ring, then the caller would announce the location of the fire.
It was in the Bicentennial year, 1976 that the Alcoa Fire Department first held a fireworks show for the citizens of Alcoa. School teacher, Martha Wright and Alcoa resident Rose McConnell came up with the idea and approached Chief Story. The American Field Service Club gave them $75.00 to buy fireworks and with an additional $25.00 in donated fireworks and with the cooperation of the Alcoa Fire Department the first fireworks show was held. This would be a fourth of July tradition for 32 years before being suspended for economic and budgetary reasons.
As a means to reduce the number of fires, a fire inspection program was implemented and Captain Clifford Freeman assumed the duties as the first Fire Inspector in 1969. He would remain in this position until he was named Fire Chief in 1979. Fire personnel now wore pagers that alerted them by tone of fire calls and additional radio’s for the department were hand me downs from the police department.
A new retirement benefit and 401k thrift plan was available to employees starting around 1983. The three shift Captains during the early 80’s were Gene Thomas, Frank Johnson and Larry Graves. Deathrow Chambers was a Maintenance Captain and Claude Scarbrough was appointed Fire Inspector.
By the mid 1980’s the fire service was being regulated by the State of Tennessee. Certifications were now being earned for Firefighter I, II, III and Hazardous Materials Technicians. Around 1987 the Alcoa Fire Department was one of the first departments in the state to attain certification as First Responders. Trained in basic first aid and CPR, the department did not respond to vehicle accidents unless it was a vehicle fire and requested by the ambulance service or police department.
Educating school children and the citizens of Alcoa in fire safety has always been a priority of the department and a fire education program started in the early eighties. Pat Flynn was appointed Fire Inspector in 1988 and along with Fire Prevention Officer Tom Daffron they were responsible for scheduling fire safety programs.
Deathrow Chambers was the first member of the Alcoa Fire Department to retire. Chief Freeman retired in 1992 and Assistant Chief Larry Graves became Chief It was during this time with Chief Graves determination, the First Responder program became official and the department now responded to all medical calls. In 1992 federal laws governed that all firefighters were to be seat belted on the way to fires.
Fire Station 1 was built in 1942 and Station 2 was built in 1972. It was evident that a more newer and modern facility was needed to accommodate the citizens of Alcoa and the growing population. On October 13, 1996 a dedication and open house was held at 2010 N. Wright Road for a newly constructed fire station.
Business and population growth continued in the decade to justify the need of a third station to serve the citizens in the northwest section of the city. More personnel were needed to man this new station and in October 1998, four new employees including the department’s first female firefighter were hired. A total of six employees were hired in 1998 and two employees retired.
Open house for the newly constructed Station 3 at 3545 Central Park Blvd. was held on Sunday, October 11, 1998. The department now had a total of twenty seven members including the Chief, Deputy Chief and Secretary. The 1990’s ended with a record number of 1,117 calls for service.
Fire administrative offices along with police headquarters were moved to the new Alcoa Public Safety Building on Wright Road. An open house and dedication was held on October 19 - 20, 2001.
Captain Roger Robinson was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2003 after the untimely death of Deputy Chief Allan Woods. The Alcoa Fire Department has been very fortunate to have no line of duty deaths and only two deaths while theirmembers were serving the department. Firefighter Earl Daffron and Deputy Chief Woods. Deputy Chief Robinson would step up as the seventh and present Fire Chief when Chief Graves retired in February 2007. Chief Graves remains with the City as Safety Mgr. Captain Jim Whaley was named Deputy Chief in May 2007.
Major endeavors were started in 2008 when the Alcoa Fire Department training tower and training ground officially started construction at the City of Alcoa Service Center. Not only serving as the project manager for the training facility, Captain Tom Daffron was appointed Fire Accreditation Manager. The process of attaining accreditation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Inc. and Commission on Fire Accreditation International remained top priority in the department since 2008. Both these long-term goals were accomplished in 2012.
In July 2009, Fire Inspector Pat Flynn retired from the department and Engineer Darren Stinnett was named the new Fire Marshal. The department is now served by two Deputy Chief’s. Captain/Fire Accreditation Manager Tom Daffron was promoted to Deputy Chief in May 2012 and assists Deputy Chief Whaley in the daily operation of the department.
As of December 2012 the Alcoa Fire Department has 32 full time members. This includes the following: Chief, two Deputy Chief’s, Fire Marshal, Administrative Secretary, three Captains, six Lieutenants, 15 Engineers and three Firefighters.
Approximately 70 years after the Alcoa Fire Department was organized back in 1942 plans are being finalized to move fire headquarters and Station 1 back to the original building where it all began. Continuous growth in our city’s population, industry and businesses find the need to expand once again and look towards the future. No matter where we are located we proudly serve the citizens and visitors to the City of Alcoa.