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BFD History

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Brantford Fire Department
1835-1975
By Sara Neziol
Wildrid Laurier University
5 December 2003

 

 

NOTE: A PDF version of the history, including references, can be downloaded here.


Since its beginnings, the Brantford Fire Department has evolved in order to meet the needs of the city of Brantford. Changes have been made in the department to accommodate the ever changing requirements of the citizens of Brantford. These changes include the addition of new equipment, buildings and staff. Improvements have been made in the quirements to become a firefighter, along with

the continual training and the education of current ones. Additional programs, specifically fire prevention and public education, have increased public safety and saved lives. Today, the Brantford Fire Department is a team of highly skilled men and women dedicated to protecting the health and welfare of the city of Brantford.

It is difficult to cover the entire history of the Department in an essay of this length; therefore this essay will be confined to the following eras: Volunteer Era (1835-1889), Chief George Calder (1889-1898), Chief Dan Lewis (1898-1938), Chief Gordon Huff (1938-1954), Chief William Lambert (1954-1961) and Chief Charles Townsend (1961-1975). In each of these eras different improvements to the department were made.

A fire that occurred in 1835 was the catalyst for the creation of a fire service in the town of Brantford. The fire had to be pelted with snowballs by citizens in order for it to be extinguished. Although the method proved successful, the citizens knew that snow would not always be available to control their fires. Therefore in 1836, citizens in the town of Brantford developed a volunteer fire service, “The Goose Neck Company.” The founding members were Ignatius Cockshutt (treasurer), James Woodyatt, Robert Sproule and Squire Weyms. All funding for the operations was provided by the volunteers themselves as they were wealthy businessmen in the town of Brantford. At that time, Ignatius Cockshutt owned a general store in downtown Brantford. James Woodyatt was the owner of Woodyatt & Co., a manufacturer of stoneware, firebrick and draining tile. Squire Weyms was a shoemaker and Robert Sproule was also a merchant.


Fifty able-bodied men volunteered for the Goose Neck, as membership was considered a social honour. These men included Abram Bradley (Livery Keeper), Matthew Whitham (Baker), Duncan McKay (McKay and Smith, Saddle and Harness makers), Henry Yardington (Real Estate), James McMichael (photographer), Hugh Spencer (Spencer and Sons Brewery), George S. Wilkes (Iron Founder, Merchant and Miller), Calvin Houghton (Calvin and Houghton, leather manufacturer), William Matthews (auctioneer), William Leeming (Leeming and Paterson Confectionary and Cigar Factory) and Joseph Shuttleworth (Insurance and General Ticket Agent). It can be assumed that the reason why the men developed a fire company was to protect their businesses from devastating fires. By creating the volunteer organization, the men were not only looking out for the community, but were also turning the commercial and industrial districts into more appealing locations for a business to locate.

The Goose Neck’s first Constitution in 1842 listed the fines that the members imposed on themselves to fund the organization. These offences included interrupting others as they spoke, non-attendance at roll-call, ringing the bell (false alarm), and wearing a dirty uniform.  The Goose Neck’s lone piece of apparatus was a box and nozzle with a set of wheels and brakes. The wooden box held the water used to combat the fires. The fire service gained its name from the nozzle, which resembled a goose’s neck. This apparatus had no motorized parts; it had to be filled with pails of water and dragged to its destination by the men who operated it. Although this piece of apparatus greatly improved the departments efficiency, as it enabled the men to carry a large quantity of water, destructive fires continued to occur. Brantford was turning into an industrial centre, and many wooden buildings were built for businesses in the downtown core. The materials that the buildings were composed of, along with the lack of water mains, were the main causes for the devastating fires. In 1849, to increase the brigade’s efficiency, firefighter Duncan McKay and Ignatius Cockshutt dug a well on the north side of Colborne Street. The well enabled the apparatus to be filled quickly with  water when needed.


Eventually, the novelty of firefighting wore off as Goose Neck’s resources ran dry. Robert Sproule addressed town council in 1852 and claimed that the dissolution of the service was possible.7 The result of this threat was the creation of an additional volunteer fire brigade called the “Exchange Company” in 1853. William Paterson, owner of the confectionary and cigar factory, was named captain. The Exchange Company obtained the “Exchange Engine,” and turned into an engine company (rather than only a hook and ladder). The engine was the property of Ignatius Cockshutt, who left the Goose Neck Company to join the new brigade. In 1857 the Goose Neck Company amalgamated with the Exchange Company to become the “United Fire Brigade.”  The United Fire Brigade was Brantford’s first fire company to have uniforms.

Although members of the United Fire Brigade were pleased with their work, local residents were not. A petition for a new fire company containing 114 names was presented to town hall in 1858. A grant of $560 was made by town council, and the new unit was called “Washington Independent Company Number 5. Once the Washington Independent Company was established, Ignatius Cockshutt, formerly of the Goose Neck Company and the Exchange Company, was named president. In 1861, to aid in the company’s coverage of the downtown area, town council funded the placement of 6 water cisterns for Washington Independent’s use. Town council funded the building of a Central Fire Station for the departments on 50-54 Dalhousie Street in 1862. All of the different apparatus and the men were housed in this building (Figure 1).

Other volunteer fire companies that formed during this time included the YMCA Rescue Company, the Independent Hose Company and the Undaunted Hook and Ladder Company. Additional fire companies were developed due to dissatisfaction, animosity and competition. The competition grew so fierce, that fist fights and brawls broke out between the different brigades in the Central Station. Town council was concerned that the competition was preventing the companies from protecting residents and businesses from fires. The result was another amalgamation in 1871. Approximately fifty members from the various fire companies were divided into two new companies: the Brant Hose Company No.1 and the New Victoria Hook and Ladder Co (Figure 2).


With the town of Brantford steadily spreading, the waterworks system was installed in 1870. This greatly improved the fire departments efficiency. Until this time, they relied only on cisterns, the canal and the Grand River as their water sources. The increasing size of the town proved too demanding on both the men and their apparatus’, as the hard rough roads easily tired the men and often damaged the equipment. The first team of horses and the first horse drawn apparatus came to the Town of  Brantford in about 1870-1871.

Although improvements were being made in the fire protection of Brantford, the two companies continued to compete. It became so unbearable that it hampered the efficiency of the department operations. The departments focused more on their competition  than their duty of protecting the pub lic. City council encouraged the competition by offering the department that arrived at the scene of a fire first an award of five dollars. Although both departments might arrive at the scene of a fire, they were  not obligated to necessarily stop it. A person or business had to subscribe to the department in order to receive its services. A card would then be placed on the participant’s gate to prove their payment. If a department arrived at a fire and there was no  card, they would offer no help.16 Due to subscription policies and the fierce competition between the departments, Brantford citizens felt threatened and unprotected from fires. Their concerns were voiced to council, resulting in the abolition of the volunteer Fire departments. In 1888, the city of Brantford created a paid fire department.

The first fire chief of the Brantford Fire Department was George C. Calder. He was chief from 1889 to 1898. The full time firefighters, Daniel J. Lewis, “Sandy” Bremner, and Chief Calder, worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their only time off was two  hours for lunch and dinner. The department also had 25 volunteer “runners” and “sleepers.” Runners would come to assist the full time men when needed, while Sleepers would sleep at the hall overnight. The top floor of the Central Station was converted  into sleeping quarters, while the lower level housed the horses and the equipment. The equipment consisted of two horse drawn hose wagons, and one horse named “Charlie,” who was shared with other city services.

An electric alarm system was put into place during Calder’s years as Chief. On downtown streets fire alarm boxes were installed. The alarm boxes were directly connected (through wire) to the Central Station. This was the quickest way to inform the Fire  Department of a fire or an emergency (Figure 3). This system was discontinued when a greater number of telephones came into use.

Replacing Calder as chief in 1898 was Dan Lewis. Chief Lewis served as chief of the Brantford Fire Department until 1938. He brought the Department into the era of motorization and improved working conditions for the firefighters. Lewis recognized that  motorized vehicles and equipment were important in providing the best fire protection possible.19 Before he purchased motorized equipment, he obtained the department’s first horse drawn- ladder wagon in 1912. Although it was only “a box that carried  ladders,”20 it allowed the men to carry larger and heavier ladders to fires. In 1915, the first piece of motorized equipment was purchased. It was a hose and chemical wagon manufactured by the Waterous Engine Works of Brantford. Additional pieces of motorized equipment that Lewis added included: A life boat truck (1918), a Dodge ambulance (1918), a pumper (1918), a chief’s car (1919), a chemical hose and ladder truck (1920), a Studebaker ambulance (1923), a ladder truck (1926), two pumpers  (1930, 1934), a Packard ambulance(1937) and a new chief’s car in 1938. The addition of these different pieces reduced the response time in which the department could reach a fire. It also improved their services, now allowing them to take part in  ambulance and diving duties. The department became fully motorized in 1926, when the last horse drawn wagon was withdrawn.


In 1908, a second station was built in order to house the equipment and the horses (Figure 4). The new station was on the corner of Murray and Mary Streets. The station improved the response time to Brantford’s east end. In 1924, due to the addition of motorized vehicles to the department, the station was no longer needed and was closed. Motorized vehicles enabled quick response times to all areas in Brantford from the one main station.

In 1918, the fire department added another service to benefit the citizens of Brantford. The additions of the Dodge ambulance and the life boat truck turned the department into a fully equipped ambulance rescue service. The firefighters were trained to fight  fires, as well as drive ambulances and attend to the patients.

During his time as chief, Lewis also improved the conditions in which the firefighters worked. The men were continually trained to ensure that they could employ the newest methods of the time. Fire drills were held, and there was constant training in fire  fighting techniques and equipment procedures. By training the men, Lewis “not only improved their firefighting skills, he was also improving their own personal safety.” New uniforms were provided for the firefighters, which included a dress uniform, an overcoat, rubber boots and a helmet. The additions of rubber boots and helmets also greatly contributed to the safety of the fire fighters.

Prior to 1910, firefighters were on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In 1910, Lewis was able to grant the men 1 day off a week for much needed rest and family time. In 1919, he introduced the “two platoon system.” The men would work a 10 hour day or a 14 hour night- no longer 24 hours a day. This system decreased the firefighters working time to 96 hours/week.  In addition, Lewis was the first Brantford fire chief to regulate hiring qualifications that applicants had to meet in order to become a fire  fighter. The regulations were that a candidate had to be a physically fit male between the ages of 21 to 31. Although the qualifications were simple, it was the first step in ensuring that Brantford was protected by those who were best suited to perform the  physically demanding job.

Lewis also recognized that additional firefighting positions were needed in the department to adequately serve Brantford. The event that proved his case to council tookplace on March 3, 1913. The E.B. Crompton and Company Drygoods burned to the ground  partly because of the shortage of firefighters. One third of the men had been sent home for dinner, and were unable to return quickly enough to contain the blaze.25 This blaze also contributed to the development of the system in which all off-duty firefighters were on call. If a firefighter was to leave his home while he was off duty, he had to notify the station of where they could be reached. There is still a vestige of this system in the department today.

At the end of Lewis’ term as chief in 1938, Brantford’s population had grown to 31 339. The fire department covered 5.5 square miles and was composed of 29 men. There were 483 fire hydrants and 42 direct wire alarm boxes through out the down town in service. Daniel J. Lewis brought the Brantford Fire Department into the age of motorization. He also worked hard to improve the fire fighters working conditions.

In 1938, Lewis was succeeded as chief by Gordon Huff. Huff served as chief until 1954. His goal was to implement a new and innovative method of protecting people from fires. His concept of Fire Prevention brought the Brantford Fire Department national  recognition.

The concept of fire prevention was a new direction for the fire department. Previously, the energy had been devoted to the addition of equipment and labour. Fire fighting procedures were kept within the hall and little public involvement was solicited. Fire  prevention included the citizens of Brantford by promoting awareness of how to prevent fires from starting. An important position implemented by Huff to aid in fire prevention was the fire inspector. The role of the fire inspector was to inspect buildings for fire  hazards. The inspector would also ensure that buildings conformed to city bylaws and provincial standards. This included inspections relating to liquor licenses and inspections of public halls and schools for fire related hazards.


After only two years in office, Chief Huff was recognized provincially and nationally for his efforts in providing the citizens of Brantford with excellent fire and ambulance services. In 1939, the Brantford Fire Department placed first for cities of 25,000 to  100,000 in population in the Ontario Fire Prevention Awards and won first place in the Dominion of Canada awards for cities of all sizes. The Brantford Fire Department “was a leader to other departments in Canada, specifically in the area of fire prevention”, during this time.

Chief Huff was also a recognized leader and a local hero among the citizens of Brantford after World War II. He organized a contingent of Canadian fire fighters called the “Canadian Corp of Overseas Fire Fighters.” Charlie Townson, Tom Mason, Frank Ion and Chas. Wheatley, all from the Brantford Fire Department, joined the CCOFF. Their job was to fight the fires in England created by the blitz. Although this contingent was not an official branch of the military, Huff was commissioned a brigadier general and was stationed in England for three years. For his heroic efforts and leadership, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

During the war years, while Chief Huff was in England, the Brantford Fire Department was under the direction of the Acting Chief G.A. Bremner. During Huff’s absence, Bremner was able to obtain special permission from the provincial government to  purchase the department’s first hyd raulic ladder truck in 1944. The hydraulic truck was an important piece of equipment, as it enabled the fire fighters to reach very high buildings. The ladder was raised through a “power take off” system with the truck’s transmission. It powered the heavy ladder by pressurizing two hydraulic oil pistons to raise and lower the ladder.31 This piece of equipment was state of the art at the time of its purchase and hydraulic ladder trucks (aerials) remain today as a staple truck in  the fire department.

After the war, Huff continued to strive for improvements in the department to serve the needs of Brantford’s citizens. Public demonstrations of the different trucks and equipment were held to increase awareness of fire prevention. Meanwhile, he decreased the working hours of the firefighters from 96 hours a week to 56. The men received 2 days off and 14 days vacation.  In order to compensate for the decreased hours, additional firefighting positions were opened. In 1940 the station employed only 28 men but by 1950 the staff had grown to 50.

In 1947, Huff introduced the department to the mobile radio system. There was now communication between the fire station and the men who were on the scene at the fire. This communication was important to relay information such as directions, false alarms and the need for back- up. This was a “vital addition to the department’s efficiency.”

During Huff’s time as chief, Brantford’s population increased rapidly, from 31, 497 in 1940 to 37, 129 in 1950. In order to serve the population to the best of their ability, the fire department needed a new facility to house the equipment and their quarters.  A dispatch room and training facilities were important aspects of the new facility. The new hall was built on Newport Street in 1953. It was occupied in January of 1954 and was the last major achievement for Chief Huff, who passed away, still in office, in July of 1954.

With the passing of Chief Huff, former Captain William Lambert was promoted to chief and headed the department until 1961. Lambert was instrumental in organizing the Brant County Mutual Aid System. This system linked all seven departments in the county of Brant, and would enable quick assistance to a department if it was needed. If a department “was committed, they could call for outside assistance and Brantford would be there to help.” Chief Lambert was the first county coordinator.

Chief Lambert was also instrumental in obtaining a second fire hall to improve the department’s fire protection in Brantford. Lambert believed that an additional station was needed in the city’s north end due to its rapid growth. The need for an addition station is a combination of “the response time to a particular area, the number of responses needed in the area and the number of people in a particular area.” There was a large population increase in Brantford from 1950 to 1955. By 1955 the city had grown from 37,129 (its population in 1950) to 50,925. The area that the department was responsible for protecting had also grown rapidly. In 1950 it was 5.5 square miles, while in 1955 it was 17.85 square miles. There was a need for an additional station, and  the city agreed. In 1961, Fire Station #2 opened on St. Pauls Ave. In order to staff the new facility, the strength of the department grew from 50 men in 1954 to 85 in 1961. Hours were also cut for the firefighters during this time; they now worked 48 hours a  week. Additional equipment was also purchased in order to protect the citizens of Brantford. Two pumpers, a 100 foot aerial ladder truck and a rescue truck were added to the department.


There had not been any new developments in the requirements to become a fire fighter since J.D. Lewis’ era as chief. The 1955 International Association of Fire Fighters Statistics states that there were no medical examinations required for new or current  members of the department. When Lambert retired in 1961, his successor, twenty-three year veteran, Chief Charles Townson, oversaw changes to the hiring process.

A new form of hiring was developed in order to ensure that all firefighters were adequately trained and physically fit before they could join the force. The process included an application, an interview (with the head of human resources of the city, the chief and deputies), and a medical test performed by the city doctor. New men were also required to obtain a Saint John’s first aid certificate and have completed a high school level of grade ten. New policy was also developed that permitted retirement for a firefighter at the age of sixty.

The only death to date of an on-duty Brantford firefighter occurred on May 7, 1967. Firefighter Jack Mulligan, standing on the rear tailboard of the pumper, was struck by the department’s aerial truck following closely behind. The pumper he was riding had stopped abruptly when firefighters noticed children lighting a fire in a garbage can. The heavy aerial truck was unable to stop in time and struck Mulligan. He died 3 days later from his internal injuries.

Equipment improvements were made during Towson’s  years in office to enhance the safety of the firefighters. Previously, firefighters were not forced to wear face masks  when on the scene of fires. The firefighters who did wear one were protected by a mask that only covered their mouth and noses, as it did not have an air tank component (This situation prompted the nickname “Smoke Eaters”). A new type of face mask was introduced, which included a breathing apparatus. These “rebreathers” became a mandatory piece of protective equipment and reduced the amount of injuries to firefighters from smoke inhalation.

Under Towson, the fire prevention unit expanded to become a four person division. The expanded division allowed for the implementation of the Home Inspection Program (Figure 5). This program increased public awareness of fire safety issues, and enforced fire- law regulations. Fire crews, with their trucks, would inspect every home in Brantford for fire hazards (if the resident allowed them onto their property). Physical inspections of a property allowed the firefighters to educate the resident on the importance of smoke alarms and eliminating general fire hazards. This program is still operated in Brantford.

Rapid growth in the city’s north-east section and the Formpac fire in 1973 brought on the development of Brantford’s third fire station. A fire consultant’s report in 1974 concluded that Brantford was under serviced in fire protection. 44 Following the consultant’s report and Chief Towson’s approach to City Council, Number Three Hall was built. It officially opened in June of 1976 on Lynden Road.

The lone truck that was purchased during Towson’s years in office was an elevated platform snorkel with a 1050 gallons per minute pump. It was referred to as the “battleship of the fleet” due to the fact that older department members were world war two  veterans. The veterans referred to the fire department’s equipment as equipment from the war. “To them, fighting a fire was the same as fighting the enemy of a war.” Chief Townson retired in 1975.

The Brantford Fire Department was the product of local residents recognizing a need in the community and meeting that need to the best of their abilities. The Fire Department has constantly adapted to improve its service in Brantford. The additions of new motorized equipment and the addition of the Fire Prevention program greatly increased the city’s protection from devastating fires. The years 1835-1975 were years of great change in the department. These innovative changes led to national recognition for Brantford in the field of fire fighting. Up to the present time, the department has continued to adapt to the changing needs of the citizens of Brantford, and provide the highest level of protection of life, property and the environment for those who live, work or play in the Brantford community.