Wheeling Fire Department Celebrating 150 Years
WHEELING — As the city celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, another Wheeling institution is having a birthday of its own: the fire department.
Later this year, the Wheeling Fire Department will reach 150 years since City Council passed a resolution to form an organized, paid fire department in 1869.
Like Wheeling, the department has a long, rich history, and it’s something that Chief Larry Helms is proud of.
“It’s pretty cool that we’ve been an organized fire department for 150 years. Of course we’re the old guys now, but the older guys when I came on, they were always saying, and we’re saying it today, ‘those young guys don’t realize what we had to do back then,'” Helms said.
“Now we’re saying it about the young guys who are coming on, about how technology’s changed,” he continued. “In some cases it makes our job easier, but in other cases it just expands our duties.”
The department’s history stretches back even further than its founding, as independent fire companies were first formed in Wheeling in the early 19th century.
In 1807, Wheeling passed its first regulations concerning fire accidents. In 1819, the city appropriated $700 from a levy to purchase a fire engine, hooks and ladders to be used to combat fires.
The next year, Mayor Moses Chapline ordered that all men 16 years or older in Wheeling enroll and meet to form a fire company. Council established a building to house fire equipment on the west end of the Market House, between 10th and 11th streets today.
At that time, firefighters did their job using durable leather buckets that held 2.5 gallons of water, according to the fire department. They would form “bucket brigades,” or lines of people relaying water back and forth from the fire truck.
Throughout the next several decades, seven independent, volunteer-based fire companies were formed throughout the city. The First Wheeling Hose and Fire Company was established in 1830, for example, and the Rough and Ready Fire Company came about in 1846.
Then, a series of bad fires culminating in a tragic building collapse in 1868 prompted council to take action and form a combined, paid fire department, Helms said.
“There was a building collapse that killed a firefighter and two officers that was kind of the deciding factor that City Council decided that we need to have at least partially paid fire department,” he said.
On Dec. 21, 1869, the department was formed and William Winder of the Atlantic Engine Company was named chief. Winder divided the city into two fire districts split at Wheeling Creek and organized four fire companies.
“Over the years, each chief has seen something else and technology has changed,” Helms said. “Eventually, we had our first breathing apparatus. Prior to that, firefighters were known to have long beards and mustaches. They would basically wet their mustaches or hankies and put them in their mouth and try to filter the smoke out.”
For much of the fire department’s history, fire engines were pulled by horses, which were given names like Frank, Bob and Mack. New horses replacing old ones were given the same names, so the department always had a Frank and a Bob, Helms said.
Technology the department used to fight fires advanced over the years, Helms said, such as the water pumps.
“The first pumps were hand driven, then we graduated to the chemical pumps, which mixed soda, ash and sodium bicarb to put pressure on a bladder which actually forced water out,” he said. “The chemical trucks were around until they came out with the steamers, and then we went to (today’s) mechanized apparatus.”
A fire alarm system in Wheeling was set up in 1880 by Chief William Eccless, through small boxes located around the city with levers that people would pull in the days before 911.
The city’s firefighters first used respirators as breathing devices in 1892, and the last team of horses to fight a fire before the department switched to automobile trucks occurred in 1912.
“The protective clothing has definitely changed over the years, originally being wool jackets, shirts and pants, to the full PPE, or personal protective equipment, that we’re wearing today,” Helms said.
Many advancements in fighting fires in the 20th century were inspired by the military, Helms said, such as using infrared to measure fire temperatures.
Other changes include the type and severity of fires the department encounters now, made more dangerous by the presence of plastics that emit carcinogens when burned, Helms said.
“We used to say that the fire doubles in size every minute,” he said. “Now it quadruples in size, just because of the plastics and stuff that we’re putting in our homes.
Helms joined the Wheeling Fire Department in 1986, and remarked on how much has changed even in the past few decades. Daily call logs were recorded in large books when he joined, but today everything is recorded in the department’s cloud-based computer software.
“It’s been a lot of changes, even in my career,” Helms said. “It’s funny how things have changed.”