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Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

GROUNDWORK, 1826-1859

Beginning with volunteer fire companies in 1825, the Indianapolis Fire Department has a long and venerable history of service. The first recorded fire in the city was at Thomas Carter's Tavern on January 17, 1825. A year later the first informal, volunteer city-formed fire brigade was founded with Caleb Scudder as Captain. Over the next 25 years, volunteer firemen would create a total of eight distinct companies.

History of Indianapolis Firefighters Museum

On November 14, 1859 the Indianapolis Fire Department was born. Almost overnight, the number of firemen in the city went from approximately 600 to 31. Volunteers felt strongly about the creation of a professional department and refused to give up their equipment. Because of this, the city went without fire protection for a period of two months.

A Marions engine house, 1835
A Marions engine house, 1835

ESTABLISHMENT, 1859-1900

Chief- Daniel Glazier circa 1860
Chief- Daniel Glazier circa 1860
B2 Hose Company 9, 1870s
B2 Hose Company 9, 1870s

Despite this rocky start, the fire service continued to grow. The 1860s and 1870s ushered in new companies, procedures, and methodologies. Between 1860 and 1876, 18 new companies went into service. June 1, 1871 saw the beginning of the Indianapolis Water Works Company with 300 plugs and 50 boxes. The 1870s also saw the first line of duty death for the Indianapolis Fire Department. On March 11, 1873 Chief Daniel Glazier was killed during the Sarven Wheel Works fire.

In 1876 Hose Company 9, the first African-American fire company was formed. IFD was one of the first fire departments to hire African-Americans, however the only opportunities for new hires came when a current Company 9 member quit, retired, was fired, or passed away.

Bowen-Merril Fire, March 17, 1890
Bowen-Merril Fire, March 17, 1890

1890 witnessed one of the biggest disasters in IFD history with the deaths of 12 firefighters at the Bowen-Merrill Company Wholesale and retail Book and Paper House fire on March 17 at 18 West Washington Street. When the building collapsed in on itself 12 fire fighters were killed, and 4 died later of their injuries. As a result of this fire, in 1891 the Fire Pension Fund was established by State Law.

MODERNIZATION, 1900-2000s

The 1900s ushered in a new era in IFD firefighting technology. In 1901 a Gamewell call box system was installed on the top floor of city hall. The Gamewell system meant faster reports of fires and therefore better fire safety. By 1906 the city had 289 call boxes, and an impressive 2,485 hydrants. The Great Depression led to the creation of a new kind of apparatus – the shopbuilt. In an effort to reduce costs, the Repair Shops began building their own engines and trucks. Over the next couple decades, a total of nine shopbuilt apparatus would be built by IFD.

Repair Shops, 1920s
Repair Shops, 1920s

Through the 1950s and 60s new houses were built and existing houses were renovated, bringing stations into the modern age. The 1960s saw the integration of the department – no longer were African American firefighters confined to just a few positions and one house. In 1978, Bryona Slaughter was hired as the first female firefighter.

Coliseum Explosion, 1963
Coliseum Explosion, 1963

In 1963 the city experienced one of its worst disasters with the explosion of the Coliseum on the State Fairgrounds. 74 people were killed and nearly 400 were injured when a propane tank exploded. In 1973, 220 firefighters fought a multiple alarm fire over the course of several days. The Grant building on East Washington Street generated over $3.5 million in damage and affected 84 businesses in 15 surrounding buildings. Interestingly, it was near the site of the 1890 Bowen-Merrill fire.

EDUCATION, 1980-present

In the later part of the 20th century prevention and training moved to the forefront. Continuing a trend that had begun in the late 1970s, IFD began to greatly expand their Emergency Medical Services (EMS). This would transform the face of the department as all firefighters were trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and more apparatus were put in service as EMS vehicles.

Athletic Club video

Many changes came after a major fire at the Athletic Club on Meridian Street. Corporal Ellwood Gelenius and Private John Lorenzano were killed due to a flashover. Because of this fire, the High-Rise Fire Ground Manual was created, a flashover training chamber was purchased, Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) training was established, improved gear was purchased, the position of high-rise chief was created, and a unified reporting system was put into place.

In 1995, Indianapolis became the host of the international Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC). Also in 1995, the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum and Survive Alive opened in old Station 2 on Massachusetts Avenue. Through exhibits and this digital archive, the Museum educates the public and firefighters alike about the rich history of the Indianapolis fire service, as well as firefighting techniques throughout history. Since it opened the interactive village Survive Alive has educated and trained over 180,000 children from all over the state about modern fire safety and prevention.

Indianapolis Firefighters Museum, 1996
Indianapolis Firefighters Museum, 1996

In recent years, more focus has been placed on prevention of a different sort. Cancer prevention for firefighters is a pressing and very real concern for departments across the world. Common household goods contain a toxic class of fire retardant chemicals that have been linked to heightened levels of cancer among firefighters. In 2017 firefighter Joel Johnston became the first cancer Line of Duty Death on the Indiana Law Enforcement and Fire Fighter Memorial at the Indiana Statehouse. Please explore the digital collection for firsthand accounts, in-depth articles, and current news surrounding this important topic.