History of the Billings Fire Department
- The Beginning
- The Early Days
- Taking Off
- The Sixties & Seventies
- The Eighties & Nineties
- The Modern Era
caused the organization of the first volunteer Fire Company which was named Billings Fire Brigade. Their equipment consisted of buckets and axes.
Water had to be hauled to town in wagons from the Yellowstone River. Each householder and storekeeper was encouraged to keep a barrel of water handy with a bucket so that incipient fires could be put out before they had a chance to make headway. After the 1883 completion of the Big Ditch, water was brought into town by open ditches, one of which flowed along Montana Avenue.
In 1886, after fire razed an entire block of buildings for the second time in as many years, the Yellowstone Hook and Ladder Company was founded. A large bell was also purchased with which to sound fire alarms. Prior to this, firing three gunshots into the air was the method used to sound fire alarms.
Yellowstone Hook and Ladder Company functioned until around July 1888, when it angrily disbanded after the mayor criticized them for the way they had fought a livery-stable fire. The fire bell was donated to Washington School. Billings was left vulnerable and without a fire department for almost six months.
Maverick Hose Company
Finally, some of the men decided to reorganize, and they were then incorporated under the laws of the State of Montana and renamed the Maverick Hose Company. Their equipment consisted of three hose carts. The fire alarm bell went to the Mavericks and was installed in a tower in Fire Station No. One, located at First Avenue and 28th Street. By this time, Billings had installed some water mains, giving the town a more reliable water supply, and it was agreed that the firemen would receive $1.00 for each fast response.
The Maverick Hose Company proved to be one of the most colorful organizations in Billings. "Maverick" was adopted as a sign of their new independence, "bearing no one’s mark, not even the mayor’s".
New members were taken in only after a thorough investigation, election, and initiation. The roster of that illustrious group included many leading citizens, and they performed an unforgettable service without remuneration of any kind. In fact, these volunteers paid an initiation fee and dues for the privilege of fighting fires. These fees, dues, and the fines assessed members who failed to respond to an alarm were used to purchase equipment and operate the fire department. And, the Mavericks had a lot of fun.
According to an article from the Gazette, "As social affairs, the meetings of the Maverick Company were a huge success. Initiations were ordeals that had those of any fraternal organization cheated. Beer drinking was an integral part of most gatherings and grateful businessmen were always ready to "set them up" liberally each time the Mavericks had proven their merit with hook and ladder and hose."
Station No. One was located at First Avenue and North 28th Street, and housed two wheeled hose carts that were pulled by hand. Late in 1894, the first team of horses was purchased, and the first paid man, John Hostler, was employed to train them. "Old-timers" probably still remember the names of each team of horses - Tom and Jerry, Rock and Rye, and Jeff and Denver.
The Early Twentieth Century
The first motorized equipment, the Robinson Hose and Chemical Pumping Engine, was purchased in 1910. In 1911, Station No. Two was built at Second Avenue South and 30th Street. The Fireman’s hours were changed from twenty-four to twelve hours on September 1, 1914, and more Firemen were appointed. At that time, the paid firemen took over duties of the volunteers, and there were seven men, fulltime, paid employees.
In 1918, the Maverick Hose Company disbanded. Prohibition had begun and the "notoriously hard-drinking" company felt that their annual banquets would not be as much fun without beer. Besides, more and more men were being paid to fight fires, so there was no more need for a volunteer fire company. "A great humanitarian organization passed out of existence." It was said that, to have belonged to the Mavericks in the early days, even as an honorary member, was a distinction more coveted than a place on the Governor’s staff. Today, the Mavericks’ fire bell enjoys a place of honor on the campus of MSU-Billings, at the East end of the Peaks to Plains Park.
By 1930, The Billings Fire Department had a force of 15 paid firefighters and 10 men on call for emergencies, some of whom were students who were given beds in return for services. The equipment consisted of two pieces of pumping apparatus with hoses and pumps, one piece of hose and chemical apparatus, one 40-gallon chemical wagon, one ladder truck and one high-pressure wagon equipped with a monitor nozzle. It could, reportedly, produce 1200 gpm! The Billings Fire Department had also entered into the field of first aid.
On June 23, 1937, Local 521 of the International Association of Firefighters was chartered in Billings. Meanwhile, Montana became the first state in the union to establish an eight-hour day for Firefighters.
In June 1943, the Mayor and City Council of Billings authorized establishment of the Billings Fire Prevention Bureau, headed by a full-time Fire Marshal, Grant Gainan.
In 1944, a determined group of City and Fire officials, along with other interested citizens, began a program to improve the firefighting facilities and work toward a reduction in fire insurance rates. Nationally there were 10,000 lives and $461,487,000 in property lost in 1947. These staggering losses spurred President Truman to sponsor a nationwide conference in Washington, DC. In 1948, the City covered 3.5 sq. miles with five fire stations.
By their efforts concerning manpower, equipment, radios, and new stations, Billings was re-rated in 1950 from Class six to Class four, with resulting savings in insurance premiums.
In 1954, bids were taken for the Terry Park Station, which opened in 1955 with the addition of 13 new men. 1955 also saw the start of the new Communications Division of the Billings Fire Department, using four firefighters as dispatchers.
The City hired the first civilian dispatchers in 1960 to allow the four firefighters to return to full combat duty. At the end of 1961 the Fire Department employed 66 men for fire combat and fire prevention, including 15 combat officers, one Fire Marshal, two Fire Inspectors, one Alarm Superintendent and one mechanic. In addition, one stenographer and four civilians serving as dispatchers made a total of 71 persons employed by the department.
With the growth of the City toward the West, a bond issue was approved for $380,000.00 in 1964 to relocate the No. Two and No. Three Stations. No. Two, the Southside station, was moved from Second and South 30th Street to Fifth and South 28th Street. And, No. Three moved from Pioneer Park at Virginia Lane and Avenue F to 17th Street West and Parkhill Drive, in 1965.
1969 saw an increase in the number of working hours from 40 to 44 per week when the present 24-hour shift was put into effect. This is the year that the City of Billings officially recognized Local 521 of The IAFF as the bargaining unit for Billings Firefighters.
The City passed a bond issue in 1972 for two new stations, a Controlled Burn Building, a Maintenance Building, and an upgrading of the Alarm and Communications systems. They replaced the old, telephone-line based alarm system of 37 pull-boxes with a new, state-of-the art, wireless system of 96 pull-boxes. And, 10 more men were hired as firefighters.
In 1973 new fire apparatus was purchased. This was the first of many pieces of apparatus in that favorite color of firemen everywhere: lime green. 18 more men were hired as firefighters. 1974 saw a move into the new five bay station at 23rd and Eighth Avenue North. It still serves as the Headquarters Fire Station today.
Billings Fire Department received a new 100-foot aerial ladder truck in 1976. By this time there was also an 85-foot aerial ladder truck, five fire stations, 106 firefighters, 10 civilian employees, eight pumpers, one squirt, one 85-foot snorkel, three cars, two vans, three pickups, one communications van, one rescue truck, one chemical truck, and one hose truck.
In 1979 the city established the Communications Center, an act which actually put the police and fire dispatchers, as well as the city telephone operators together in one room. It was housed at the Headquarters Fire Station building.
With increased population growth in the Heights, a new fire station was built at 760 Lake Elmo Drive in 1980. This brought the number of fire stations to six.
In 1985, after an Interlocal Agreement was reached between the City of Billings and Yellowstone County, there was established a Joint City/County 9-1-1 Center. This brought the Sheriff dispatchers into the same Comm. Center with the rest of the dispatchers and phone operators. Also in 1985, two Pierce Arrow Quint Fire Engines were purchased. And, they were RED! All apparatus purchased after this time have also been red.
The following year saw the annexation of the Heights, adding 5.3 square miles to the size of Billings. So, in 1987, Fire Station No. Six was relocated approximately two miles further north, to 1601 Saint Andrews.
In 1988, after the demise of the privately owned O’Donnell’s Fire Service left a lot of people and property without fire protection outside of the city limits, the Billings Urban Fire Service Area (BUFSA) was created. This increased to about 70 square miles the area protected by the Billings Fire Department.
Within the fire department, 1991 saw the creation of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. This gave the department a dozen men trained and certified at the Technician level, with the requisite resources and equipment, whereas the rest of the department maintained its level of first-responder Haz-Mat training. In the Comm. Center 1991 also saw the addition of Enhanced 9-1-1 service in the area covered by US West Communications. Basically, this provided Caller ID for the Comm. Center, giving the location from which the call originated, as well as the name under which under the phone was registered.
In 1992 a Technical Rope Rescue Team was created, giving the department a group of individuals certified to a level of training far above the first responder level of the remainder of the department. The following year the fire department became an Emergency Medical Technician Service Provider, as almost the entire department became certified EMTs.
In 1994 Computer Aided Dispatch became a reality. Prior to this, information from 9-1-1 calls was written out in longhand, time stamped, and manually given to the appropriate dispatcher. Locations, times enroute, on scene, etc., of officers and engines was manually tracked and time stamped. CAD enabled all reports to be taken via the computer, based upon jurisdiction and location. The computer decides to whom the call goes, and from there it is dispatched. It also tracks the officers and engines. 1994 also saw the placement of Defibrillators on all six front-line fire engines.
In 1996 the Emergency Medical Dispatch Program was implemented. Basically, this allows dispatchers to give instructions to callers needing emergency medical aid, as they await the arrival of a fire engine and ambulance.
In 1997 a new 104-foot Sutphen Aerial Ladder was added to the fleet to replace the older 100-foot Pierce aerial ladder.
1998 the 800 MHz Radio system was installed and put into use, providing the city police and fire departments with expanded coverage and usage capabilities in a high-tech, computerized environment.
In 1999, using over $110,000 dollars donated by citizens and civic groups of the community, the Billings Fire Department placed Thermal Imaging Units on each front-line engine and the Battalion Chiefs’ vehicle.
More Recent Times
In the fall of 2000, a new Fire Station No. Four, (Terry Park) was opened at 475 6th Street West. It was built large enough to accommodate a cross-trained Firefighting/HazMat Team. Anticipating a move further into the Emergency Medical Services field, The Billings Fire Department also applied for and received from the State of Montana, a Paramedic Training License.
In 2001, Tiered Response Systems was initiated. Based upon the Emergency Medical Dispatch Program, it provides the ability to downgrade a response based upon liability and the nature of the call. Prior to this, all fire department responses on EMS calls were Code Three: Red lights and siren.
The Communications Center now employs 27 full-time employees and three 9-1-1-shift supervisors, one Communications Specialist, as well as one Communications Systems Manager. In the year 2000, they handled 63,304 incoming 9-1-1 calls, 196,752 incoming administrative calls, and 87,406 outgoing administrative calls. 92.43% of all incoming calls were answered in less that five seconds. They’ve come a long way from firing three shots into the air!
In 2004 the fire department received a new water tender, brush rig, and hazmat van. Also in 2004, the Fire Department received a grant for mobile data terminals.
In 2005, Fire Station Six and Three were equipped with solar electrical systems. These systems generate power for the stations and can also act as a backup power supply. Also in 2005, the fire department received a new pumper mini tower with a 75 foot platform ladder.
Personnel include a Fire Chief, an Assistant Fire Chief, A Sr. Administrative Coordinator, an Administrative Support II, a Fire Marshal, an Assistant Fire Marshal, three Deputy Fire Marshals, a Training Officer, four Battalion Chiefs, 30 Captains, 30 Engineers, and 41 Firefighters.
The Public Protection Classification (PPC) for the city limits of Billings is 4/4X. Any properties within the city limits, within 5 road miles of a recognized station, and within 1,000 feet of a credible water source will receive Protection Class 4. Any properties within the city limits, within 5 road mile of recognized station, but outside 1,000 feet of a credible water source = 4X.
Billings Urban Fire Service Area (BUFSA) is the rural portion of the community outside the city limits of Billings. This is where the tanker/tender operations are conducted. Any property within 5 road miles of a recognized station will receive Protection Class 7, Any properties over 5 road miles from a responding station will receive Protection Class 10.
Protection Classifications are not set by the Billings Fire Department nor does the BFD have access to these ratings.
Information and ratings are provided and set by ISO (Insurance Services Office Inc.) 856-985-5600