A fire extinguisher test at an old hotel, one man;s suggestion and a spontaneous discussion sparked the formation of the Watchung Volunteer Fire Department. From a meager beginning the department has developed into a first-rate organization, whose members serve the community efficiently and unselfishly.
The date was a hot, quiet August 18, 1910. A group of men were gathered at Maul’s Hotel (later to be the Washington House) and as they stood chatting, a hotel employee walked up to test a nearby hand fire extinguisher. It crossed the mind of William D Anderson that a fire company was sorely needed… and he said so. His friends readily agreed, and as quickly as that, a meeting was called to order by George Mobus, the then-township clerk. At the first gathering officers were elected: Chief William H. Titus; Foreman, Lewis Snoden; Assistant Foreman, William Walker; Treasurer, George Mobus; and Secretary Edward Channing. The name “Watchung Chemical Fire Department” was adopted at the meeting, but was changed the following week to “Watchung Chemical Engine Company, No.1”. The first fire-fighting apparatus of the new company was a hand-drawn chemical truck purchased for $100 from Scotch Plains. There was an auxiliary supply wagon towed behind the truck, and to a person supplying a vehicle or a hose to pull the equipment to a fire there was to be paid a fee of $2. Temporary headquarters were established in Chief Titus’ barn. But four months later Textier’s mill was designated as permanent quarters. Originally the church bell was used as a fire alarm, but early next year a locomotive tire, struck by a sledge hammer, was installed in front of the mill as a signal. The locomotive tire, after being in front of the exempt hall for many years, is now located in front of Fire Headquarters, it remains exactly as it was many years ago. Once a year the gong is sounded at the Memorial Day service in memory of deceased firefighters.
There were two innovations in 1913, a telephone was installed in the fire house with a extension in the Texier home and a chemical motor driven truck was acquired. The new apparatus was a 1908 Locomobile purchased for $415. Tanks were bought in 1913, and in September of that year, the Locomobile was put into service, with come comment, as it was the first motor driven fire equipment in an area where other departments still used horse-drawn trucks. During 1913 and 1914 there were many “first” for the growing company. A percentage plan for attending fires and drills was adopted; post card notification of drills and meetings was started; a fire patrol was formed; insurance of fire company property was obtained and a committee was appointed to incorporate the department. The incorporation certificate was received in September 1914 and at a special meeting the company officially adopted the name “Watchung Chemical Engine Company”. that month the old hand drawn engine that served well for four years was sold for $25 to Quakertown Fire Company.
The following year the company voted to keep records of all fires and other details pertaining to the department. Firefighters found it necessary to borrow $200 from the governing body to put equipment in running order, and it was in August that the yearly appropriation was raised to $400 by the Borough Council. A seal of incorporation was purchased in 1915, and the gas lights on the fire equipment were changed to presto lights.
On January 1, 1918, dues were raised form 25 cents to 40 cents, and it was that year that the Watchung Firemen offered their services to North Plainfield to help fight forest fires; another indication of an expanding organization. Bylaws were adopted in 1925, the same year that representatives from Watchung attended a meeting to organize a county firemen’s association. By then the company had a new meeting room on the third floor of the mill.
Progress and activity seemed to be the theme in 1925 when a Pierce Arrow chassis was bough on which to build a new fire engine. The Women’s Auxiliary was organized, and it was also the year it was agreed to sell the truck and equipment to the Borough Council for $1, with the stipulation that maintenance would be undertaken by the Borough. Watchung was growing, and with it the fire company. In 1927, the Council gave the company a piece of land for its new home. The siren was moved to the top of the mill, and the next year Max Underhill donated a Ford chassis. The company even had a song dedicated to it. Written by William Gerhold, it was entitled, “We are the Firemen of Watchung”. By the en of the 20’s, gas masks, a first aid kit, and a new piece of apparatus had been added.
By 1930 the firemen had another meeting room, and this on in the new Borough Hall. The next several years were busy ones, highlighted by the inauguration of testing the fire siren at noon (a practice still in effect), the presentation of a flagpole to the borough by the company and the auxiliary, the formation of a committee to obtain uniforms for active members, and the installation of a signal system for fire calls. In 1939 annual fire inspections of all places of business were begun/ An in 1940, the exempt firmen moved into their new building on Mountain Boulevard next to the Borough Hall.
All firemen were given blue lights for their cars to help them get through traffic faster, and in 1941, the fire police were formed and joined a state organization. By 1949 three pieces of equipment had been added – a federal tank truck, a 500 gallon per minute civil defense pumper, and a 750 gallon per minute pumper, the largest piece of apparatus in operation at that time. The 1949 Mack pumper “Engine Co. 1” is still owned by the Company to this day. The by-law plan was reorganized and firemen helped establish a borough fire ordinance.
During the war years, replacements were needed for firefighters and Watchung became one of the first communities in the state to utilize Junior Firemen. Some 20 Juniors, who first had to obtain parental permission, were kept active attending drills and regular meetings. The boys, between 15 and 21 years of age, answered calls from daybreak until 9pm. Their services, so important during the difficult war years when every community felt the manpower shortage, will never be forgotten.
On March 6, 1950, G. Edward Snoden died while fighting a shed fire, becoming the first fireman to die in the line of duty. In 1953, a fire prevention ordinance, requested by the firefighters, was adopted by the Borough Council. The measure authorized the fire department to inspect business establishments, schools, and public buildings twice a year, thereby eliminating violations before they became too dangerous. Through the ensuing yeas a new backup generator, a walkie talkie radio, radio units in the trucks, and two new trucks with high pressure pumps were added; a merit system was started; and individual insurance on the firefighter was raised to $10,000.
In 1963, the fire department installed their firs home alarms, doing away with the old locomotive tire and sledge hammer signal. It was once again time to upgrade and purchase new equipment. In 1964, a 750 gallon per minute GMC pumper holding a capacity of 1500 gallons of water was purchased. Then in 1966, another acquisition was made of a new 1000 gallon per minute Mack pumper with a 500 gallon water tank. The preservation of life and property being the sole mission of the department and with a growing community, it was decided to build a new firehouse to cover the east end of town. In 1968, the official ground breaking took place, and by 1969 the firehouse on Bonnie Burn Road was completed, along with the installation of a second sire and a new plectron alarm system.
The early 1970’s brought many new additions to the company, both operationally and administratively. In 1971, a Ford utility truck was purchased with a portable pump and foam generator. In 1972, the state laws were changed lowing the age for Junior Firefighters form 18 to 16. In 1973, a new state and municipal ordinance was adopted lowering the age for active firefighters to 18 and extending it to age 40. The department, during 1973, broke ground for its new fire headquarters to be located on Mountain Boulevard. During 1974,, the new headquarters was occupied on February 2 and dedicated on April 27. Also in 1974, a 1937 Diamond-T, was purchased by the company to refurbish and used for parades. in 1975, the Borough announced the appointment of Lt. Richard Ryan to be a liaison officer between the police, fire department, and rescue squad. Also that year a Chevy station wagon was purchased as a command vehicle for the fire chief. During the 1977 periodic evaluation of the fire department by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), our rating was upgraded from E to D. The improvement was attributed o the activities of the Fire Prevention Unit, which conducts inspections. One gauge of the proficiency of a given department is then reflected in the premiums charge for fire insurance. This had an impact on commercial property rates in town. Additionally, high marks were given for the amount of training that members of our department had undertaken at state and county level schools. In 1978, a new 1500 gallon per minute Mack pumper was purchased, replacing the old Bean high pressure pumper.
In 1981, a new GMC high pressure mini pumper was purchased and put into service as an initial response truck. The fire department also purchased pagers to be worn by members to alert them of calls. In 1984, the fire department upgraded its communications system by moving the antenna from Borough Hall to the top of the Johnston Drive water tower, thus improving radio coverage. With the increased need for manpower, the fire department has continued to assist neighboring departments at major fires.In 1886, the department accepted delivery of a Pierce Dash Pumper which was retired in 2020.
The 1990’s continued the growth of the department with the delivery of a Pierce Dash Pumper in 1996 which is still in service today as well as the replacement of command vehicles. The department and the Rescue Squad formed a Joint Extrication Team which handled all technical rescues in the Borough and was often called out to surrounding towns to assist.
In 2003 the department purchased a new Pierce Dash Pumper which is currently in front line service. In 2008 the Joint Extrication Team disbanded and the Fire Department took over all technical rescue responsibilities for the Borough. The Department celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010 with celebrations including sponsoring the Borough of Watchung’s annual picnic. The fire department continued to expand their capabilities and acquired a rescue boat to be used for water and flood rescues. This decade also saw the implementation of new technologies to improve efficiency and response capability. In addition to the existing system where are alerted by radio pagers, the department invested in programs which sent messages to cell phones and apparatus mounted tablets, and still by the siren mounted on fire headquarters as it can be heard even when a paging device isn’t near.
2020 started a new decade of service for the Department with the delivery of an E One Rescue pumper. This apparatus combined and expanded the capabilities of the 1984 Pierce Engine and the 1996 GMC Rescue. The increased equipment capacity allowed for the expansion of the rescue equipment compliment and allow for the delivery of up to 8 Firefighters on scene in a single apparatus.