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History of the Grand Forks Fire Department


On May 6, 1879, about a year after Grand Forks was organized as a village, the Grand Forks Fire Department was established, which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating City departments.  President of the Village Board, Mr. Walsh called a special meeting on January 15, 1880, to discuss equipment and quarters for the newly formed department.  Grand Forks' first firefighting apparatus arrived March 20, 1880.  The Champion Fire Engine was a two-wheel engine with a tank and the capacity of 100 gallons.  The Board also agreed to begin the bidding process for an Engine House (18' by 22' with 12 foot posts).

When the Champion Fire Engine was purchased, a company of about 15 volunteer firefighters protected Grand Forks.  Firefighting was done using the old "bucket brigade" method.  This company was re-organized in 1883 and was known as the Pioneer Extinguisher Company No.  1.

Apparently, by 1882, Grand Forks had outgrown its village status and members of the Grand Forks City Council organized the Alert Hose Company No. 1, and the Phoenix Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.  The Relief Hose Company No. 2 and the Star Hose Company No. 3 were organized and confirmed by the city Council in March 1883.

A dispute arose between the members of the volunteer fire department and Mayor L. B. Richardson about the method of appointing a Fire Chief in 1882.  The department felt it had the right to choose its own chief, subject only to ratification by the Mayor and Council, but the Mayor insisted on the right to appoint the fire chief himself.  Although the department appealed to the Council, resulting in a stormy meeting, the Council upheld the Mayor's decision.  The Mayor subsequently appointed E.H. Mix as fire chief, and the volunteers, who wanted Jim Ryan, passed a resolution to disband.  The Mayor then replaced this volunteer department with a paid department. 

Since the formation of a paid department, Grand Forks has been keeping abreast of the technology available.  In the Chronicles of 1897, the Department was highly praised; their equipment included an aerial hook and ladder rig and two hose wagons.  An electric fire alarm system, covering the entire city, rang an alarm simultaneously to the Chief's residence, Fire Department Headquarters and the pump house.  By this time, the Department had restructured and included personnel positions of Driver and Pipe man.

Also in 1897, the Dakotah Hotel, termed the "Pride of Grand Forks," was destroyed along with two adjoining buildings during a blaze.  The property loss amounted to $400,000 and two lives were lost in the fire.  The hotel was subsequently rebuilt and the building is still in use today.

In the spring of 1903, Grand Forks purchased a WS Knott steam fire engine with a 1,000-gallon pump.  The engine was equipped to handle four 2 1/2" hose lines.

By 1908, the Fire Department was housed in two fire stations.  Headquarters, located at 412 2nd Avenue North, was built in 1905.  It housed a Seagrave combination wagon and the Knott steam engine.  A big dance was held in honor of its occupation of February 10, 1906.  This station is now the home of the Fire Hall Theater.  The second station in the city was located at 215 South 4th Street.  It held a hook and ladder and a hose wagon built by the Waterous Company of St. Paul, Minnesota.  Another dance was held to honor the occupation of Station No. 2 on February 28, 1908.

Through the years, the Fire Department had several good teams of fire horses that added glamour and excitement to the fire runs of those days.  Grand Forks had a mix of both horses and machines until 1929 when the last team was traded for a Nash Truck.  The Nash was remodeled by Sims Manufacturing and became a ladder and service vehicle.  Hay still occasionally drifted out of the loft in the fire hall for another 50 years after the horses left.

Mechanizing the Department began in 1917 with the purchase of a brand new, 350 GPM, triple combination Seagrave truck with chemical tank.  In 1919, an Army surplus, Pierce Arrow truck was purchased and converted into a chemical and hose truck.  An American LaFrance 1,000 GPM, triple combination truck was purchased in 1928 and was used by the department until 1966.

The next big change for the Fire Department occurred in 1944 when the citizens of Grand Forks approved a $50,000 bond issue.  The Department was able to purchase a Seagrave 85' Aerial and two 1,000 GPM, triple combination, American LaFrance trucks.  It was also able to purchase 1,000 feet of 2 1/2" hose and 500 feet of 1 1/2" hose.

The firefighters in Grand Forks organized with the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1099 in 1952 and in 1960, the workweek for the firemen went from 72 hours to 60.  Firemen had their normal duty days plus required training days.  For firemen not responding to callback within one hour of notification, disciplinary action consisted of loss of 1/10 their monthly salary.  In October of 1972, 20 additional fire personnel were hired in preparation for the January 1973 opening of a new South-side Fire Station on 17th Ave So.  This station was built with $462,618 in Federal Revenue Sharing funds and it became the third fire station in the City.  These “new guys” brought staffing to a Chief and Deputy Chief, two Fire Inspectors and 60 Fire Suppression personnel.  In order to train all of the new personnel, the Fire Department built a five-story drill tower in the summer of 1973 for $75,000.

The North Dakota State Mill suffered heavy fire damages in 1971.  The main mill required major reconstruction and the loss had a considerable impact on the local economy.  Late in 1972, the historic Peavey Mill burnt to the ground.

In 1975, two new fire stations were opened, also built with Federal Revenue Sharing monies.  These stations replaced the two stations built at the turn of the century in downtown Grand Forks.  The Central Fire Station ($887,583) was built on the site of the old Grand Forks Chiefs ballpark at 1124 Demers Ave.  The great Willie Stargell played for the Chiefs before signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The North-side Fire Station ($469,054) was constructed at 1015 North Columbia Road with the University of North Dakota heavily influencing site selection of this station.  Also that year, an American 85 foot aerial platform was purchased and placed into service relegating the 1946 85-foot Seagrave aerial to reserve status.  Platforms were relatively new to the fire service and this addition to the fleet greatly enhanced safety for the fire fighter.  In addition, the St. Paul Fire Department passed on the delivery of a new fire engine that year and, in the space of one weekend, the City of Grand Forks made the decision to purchase that engine.  1975…a very good year!

A 15-foot Boston Whaler was purchased in 1976 to increase our ability to respond to water rescue incidents on the Red and Red Lake rivers.  When purchased, the boat was highly touted as “unsinkable” and unlike the Titanic still does float.  By the end of the year, nearly half of the Department’s firefighters were EMT certified though not responding to medical emergencies on any regular basis.

In January of 1978, Chief Lloyd “Stormy” Fairweather passed away after serving the City for 42 years, the last 14 as Fire Chief.  A new Fire Chief /Emergency Manager, Richard Aulich was hired from South St. Paul, just in time to deal with a disastrous flood in the Spring of 1979.  While the City managed to keep the Red River at bay, the English Coulee flooded overland and filled the streets of the Southwest portion of Grand Forks with water.  Our two boats worked overtime evacuating the stranded and working to minimize damages.

Hazardous materials training courses took center stage for the Department in 1980 along with radiological monitoring courses.  During this period, the Fire Prevention Bureau within the City began the “Learn not to burn” and babysitting programs.  The Department became more proactive with Public Education as opposed to just prevention.

In 1984, the Fire Department formed working committees to create consensus and advise the Department Administration.  Without realizing this management technique had a name, Total Quality Management (TQM) had found its way into the Department.  In addition, in 1984, ISO raised the department rating to a 3.

The 1985 Fair Labor Standards decision regarding a San Antonio bus driver had an enormous impact on the fire service by reducing the working hours from 56 hours a week to 53.  Granting each fire fighter in Grand Forks roughly 12 hours off each month accomplished compliance.  This had the negative impact of reducing shift strength by one from the levels established in 1972.

There was an organizational change within the Department in 1992 when our dispatch was turned over to a Public Safety Answering Point, freeing up a firefighter that we had to keep on “watch”.  At our request, the City allowed us to hire a full-time Training Officer and an additional Fire Marshal/Public Education Officer and to reduce the number of Fire Fighters by three.

In 1993, an International Rescue/EMS Unit was purchased in anticipation that the Fire Department would be responding to medical emergencies.  Through cooperation with the Grand Forks Police Department and the United Hospital Ambulance service, on April 15, 1994, the Fire Department began simultaneous response with the ambulance to medical emergencies within Grand Forks.  It finally allowed our Fire Fighter/Emergency Medical Technicians to fully utilize their skills.  Total emergency responses went from 1065 in 1993 to 2552 in 1995.

The first two female firefighters were hired in January 1996.  Nine separate bedrooms and a female bathroom replaced the dormitory at Central Fire Station to provide privacy.  This was a welcome change for all firefighters.  In addition, this same year, a Quint Telesquirt was added to the fleet in order to ensure more aerial devices on scene.

Although volumes could and have been written about the Flood and Fire of 1997, little more needs to be said.  It was a challenging time for the City and the Fire Department.  Recovery from the flood included the complete remodel of the North-side Fire Station, which was inundated with water as we fought the downtown fire.  Separate bedrooms and exercise/weight rooms were part of the remodel.

Using Community Development Block Grant monies, the City moved its South-side Fire Station to 3701 South Columbia Road.  The Fire Station was erected for just under one million dollars and included a large cold storage building on site.  The grand opening was in March of 2000.  The same monies were used to purchase an equipped Pierce 100 foot aerial platform ($800,000), which allowed us to retire our 1946 Seagrave and sell it for one dollar to a smaller fire department who continues to use this vehicle.  In an effort to upgrade the Fire Department fleet, the City also purchased two Pierce 1250 GPM engines ($175,00 each) during the year.  To ensure safety of firefighters effecting rescue on the Red River, a rescue boat ($32,000) was purchased from River Craft.  This boat has the unique ability to travel on nearly any surface whether its water, ice, or snow.

The year 2001 will be remembered for the tragic events of September 11.  Partially in response to that day, the Fire Service placed on the front burner, the training needs associated with responding to weapons of mass destruction incidents.  “Haz-mat with an attitude”—just one more responsibility for the troops.

Members of the Grand Forks Fire Department include the Fire Chief, Deputy Chief, Training Officer, 57 Firefighters, three Fire Marshals, a Fleet Mechanic, a Senior Administrative Specialist and a Senior Office Specialist.  There are 3 shifts staffed with 19 firefighters.  Each shift operates under an Incident Command System with a Battalion Chief, 4 Captains, 4 Fire Apparatus Specialists, and the remaining firefighters.  All of the firefighters are Medical First Responders, most are Emergency Medical Technicians-Basic (EMT-B), a handful are EMT-I's (intermediate), and several are paramedics. 

"Always ready, Always there" is written on the Leather Helmet Award given to the Department by the Congressional Fire Services Institute following the flood of 1997.  This slogan describes our objective for providing the best possible protection for the citizens of Grand Forks.


The following men have served as fire chiefs in Grand Forks:

  • E. H. Mix 1882-1894
  • C. H Munsey 1894-1904
  • A.H. Runge 1904-1913
  • J. J. Fitzgerald 1913-1926
  • J. Black 1926-1945
  • J. P. Newark 1945-1960
  • G. Moore 1960-1965
  • L. B. Fairweather 1965-1978
  • R. J. Aulich 1978-1999
  • P.D. O’Neill 1999-present