On June 23, 1899, the Town of Laurel was devastated by a disastrous fire that destroyed much of the downtown area. Legend has it that an argument between two gamblers led to the fire when one threw a kerosene lamp at the other. Since no firefighting equipment was available locally, firefighters responded from Wilmington, Delaware, Salisbury and Pocomoke City, Maryland.
As the smoke cleared more serious conversations took place regarding organizing a Fire Department. In October of 1899 the Laurel Fire Department was organized. The beginning years were very humble. Money was scarce, but the members did the best they could. The fire department progressed and in 1915 an American LaFrance Fire Engine was purchased. The first fire house was on Poplar Street across from Centenary Church.
At a company meeting in 1922 a member asked “Are we doing all we can for those who support us?”. At that time it was decided to organize a Fire Department Band. Practice was held every weeknight and before long the Laurel Fire Department Band was one of the premier Bands on the Eastern Shore. The band existed for fourteen years and in 1936 when it was disbanded the instruments were donated to the Laurel High School Band. To this day, Fire Department support continues as each year a music key is given to the outstanding senior band student.
In 1921 Fire Departments from across the state sent representatives to Milford, Delaware to discuss forming a statewide association. This was done and on July 1, 1921 the first Delaware State Firemen’s Convention was hosted by Laurel. Since 1921 LFD is very proud to have five individuals to have served as president of the DVFA, Elbert C. Bailey (1933), Granville White (1957), David Joseph (1972), Clifford F. Lee (1987) and Elmer Steele (1993).
In 1924 a second motorized piece of equipment was purchased when an order was placed with Ahrens-Fox, of Cincinnati, Ohio for the purchase of a 1000 Gallon Per Minute Fire Engine. “The Old Fox” is still a part of the Fire Department today.
Laurel again hosted the DVFA Convention on September 20th and 21st of 1933. In April of 1934 a motion was passed at the company meeting to send Chief W.T. Bennett to a meeting that would form the Delaware State Fire Chief’s Association.
In late 1934 members it was decided to ask all eligible ladies to organize a Ladies Auxiliary. In the months that followed work was done to complete this and on January 5, 1938 the Laurel Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary became a reality. Throughout the years the hours of service and financial support this group has given the Fire Department could not be measured.
In 1936, members of the Laurel Lions Club met with Fire Department members and asked that if they purchased an ambulance would the Fire Department be willing to run the Ambulance Service in town. The Fire Department agreed. In the early years the Fire Department ran about sixty ambulance calls per year. This year we will run about 1,200.
On April 26, 1936 two very important events occurred at the company meeting. First, the Fire Department voted to officially accept responsibility for the town’s ambulance service and secondly, a motion was passed to build a new firehouse on Poplar Street, south of the original one.
In 1937 Laurel hosted the Delmarva Firemen’s Association Convention.
As World War II approached several large fires struck the Laurel area. On April 5, 1940, Waller’s Theatre, the local movie house was destroyed by fire. On the following Monday night an order was placed with American LaFrance for a new Foamite Engine. In 1942 another engine was purchased as a Hahn Engine was placed in service. Eng. #3 and Eng. #1 would serve the community until 1964.
In October of 1941 a major fire struck downtown Laurel destroying several businesses on East Market Street.
On December 12, 1945 a committee was appointed to meet with local officials at the Sussex Hotel, in Seaford regarding building a new area hospital. This became a reality in 1952 as Nanticoke Memorial Hospital opened.
The fire department continued to grow. In 1947 a decision was made to purchase land across from the firehouse to be used as a parking lot. At that time it was necessary for the Fire Department to form a corporation which was done.
1952 saw two of the most disastrous fires to strike the town. On January 13th a fire was reported on Market Street. Before the fire could be contained half a block from Poplar Street towards Market had been destroyed. Delmar, Blades, Seaford, Salisbury and Sharptown sent assistance to the scene. On October 3, 1952 a fire was reported at the Marvil Package facility on Poplar Street. As fire engulfed the warehouse area, nine area fire departments would respond to Laurel to assist. The fire was under control around 11:00 p.m. Within two hours a fire would be reported at the Sussex Hotel in Seaford. Firefighters who had worked so hard at Marvil Package responded to Seaford for one of the largest fires their town would see in some time.
In 1952 a Ford/Hahn Engine was purchased. It featured a front mount pump and was the first enclosed cab engine.
With three fire engines and an ambulance stored in a three bay firehouse, space was at a premium. Therefore, with the order of the new fire engine an addition was built to the back of the building. Known as the 1952 Annex, this building faced Mechanic Street to the rear of the firehouse.
In October of 1954 a different kind of emergency would occur, as Hurricane Hazel swept through the area. Fires occurred, mostly in chicken houses and the Fire Department was unable to respond due to storm damage.
In late 1954 citizens of Gumboro were interested in forming their own Fire Company. As Laurel had experienced 55 years before, funds were few and demands were many. On February 7, 1955 LFD voted to donate unused equipment to assist Gumboro in organizing.
In 1955 James Ellis, who had previously served as President of the Fire Department, was elected Chief. Chief Ellis would be a role model for so many would serve as Chief for twenty years.
One of the first issues Chief Ellis faced was the Fire Department was not satisfied with the 1952 Hahn. On July 11, 1955 Chief Ellis and a delegation of the Fire Department met with the town and it was decided if a buyer would pay $6000 for it the engine could be sold and another one purchased. This was done and on May 7, 1956 a new American LaFrance Custom Engine was ordered. This unit would serve Laurel well into the 1980’s.
On August 19, 1957 another tradition began as the winners of the Laurel Exchange Club’s Miss Laurel and Little Miss Laurel Contest were asked to share their roles as our Fire Prevention Queens. This tradition continues today. The girls are present at most parades. They support the Delmarva Volunteer Firemen’s Association and attend Fire Prevention activities sponsored by the Fire Department.
On July 20, 1959 another American LaFrance Custom Engine was ordered. This one was unique in that it was white in color and was an enclosed cab, different from the rest of the fleet.
Another major Laurel business would be destroyed by fire on February 4, 1963 as Laurel Building Supply was destroyed by fire.
By 1964, the 1940 ALF and the 1942 Hahn had served Laurel for over twenty years. A motion was made to sell both and purchase a third American LaFrance Custom Eng. Eng. #3, 1964 ALF was delivered in April of 1964 and would be Laurel’s first run engine for fifteen years.
Marvil Package Company was again the scene of a serious fire on January 25, 1965. Firefighters from Blades, Delmar, Seaford and Sharptown assisted at the scene as a cloud of smoke covered the town.
Another first took place on January 10, 1966 as a used oil truck was purchased to be Laurel’s first tractor-trailer tanker. At the time this was only the second tractor trailer tanker in the county. Lewes Fire Department had put one in service in 1958.
Troubled times of the sixties even touched the Fire Department as officers attended classes on Civil Unrest.
In 1968 much attention was being placed on fund raising and on March 7, 1968 “BINGO” games began. Under the leadership of President Norman Hastings “BINGO” was quite successful. For over twenty-five years every Thursday meant “BINGO” at the Laurel Firehouse.
Another important development took place on May 13, 1968 with the installation of Fire Bells. These were placed in the homes of members who desired to have one and in the event of a fire they would ring. This was the predecessor of the paging systems we have today.
On January 13, 1969 a committee was appointed that would eventually purchase the LFD’s first rescue truck
In 1971 a second Cadillac Ambulance was placed in service and a motorized rescue boat was purchased.
Mr. Elbert C. Bailey joined the Laurel Fire Department in 1908. He had served as President, Chief, Trustee and 27 years as Secretary. He was Past-President of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association and the Delmarva Firemen’s Association. On January 31, 1972 a motion was made to put a single piece of equipment in Mr. Bailey’s funeral procession.
The 1972 Delaware State Firemen’s Convention was hosted by Laurel and Delmar. David B. Joseph, of Laurel, served as President that year.
On October 19, 1974 a celebration was held at the Laurel American Legion to honor the 75th Anniversary of the Fire Department.
In the mid 1970’s attention turned towards efforts to obtain a new firehouse. On February 16, 1976 the Fire Department voted to purchase land on Tenth Street for the new Fire Station. In April of 1978 the fire department moved to its new station on Tenth Street. This is a state of the art facility with a modern fire station and one of the finest banquet facilities on Delmarva.
October 31, 1977 was a sad day for the Fire Department. A fire alarm was reported at Carvel Gardens Apartments. While responding to the alarm, Past Chief Engineer and Ambulance Captain Clifford Whaley, died of a heart attack. He was found slumped over the wheel of his truck as he attempted to respond to the fire station.
In 1978 orders were placed with Pierce for a 1978 Ford/Suburban Engine and a GMC Pierce Mini-pumper.
On October 8, 1978 one of the largest fires ever to strike the town occurred and the Dollar General Store and Laurel House Hotel were destroyed by fire. A smoke investigation was reported at the Dollar General Store. As firefighters entered the building, they were blown back in the street by an explosion. Before the night was over approximately fifteen area fire companies would respond to the scene.
The 1980’s brought many equipment updates. New pieces of equipment were purchased to keep up with technology. The 1959 ALF Eng.#1 was replaced in 1980 by a Pierce Ford/Suburban Engine.
In 1983 a GMC/Saulsbury Rescue Truck was ordered. The replace the used 1960 Ford that had been purchased in the mid-1970’s from Oakmont, Pennsylvania.
On February 13, 1984 a motion was passed to have the 1924 Ahrens Fox go through a restoration project. The main theme of this was to make her appear as she did when she arrived from Cincinnati, in 1924.
In September of 1985, LFD faced a nightmare that all firefighters dread. Responding to a serious auto accident north of town, they arrived to find one of its own, Engineer Eddie Massey, seriously injured. He died shortly thereafter.
On the morning of June 21, 1986 another event took place that all involved with the fire department at the time will also not forget. At 4:03 a.m. Emergency Operations Dispatcher Alice Bruce, took a call for a fire at the Paradee Oil Storage Facility on Rt. 13. As the caller in on the phone with Mrs, Bruce the muffled sound of an explosion could be heard in the background.
Those first arriving at the firehouse did not know what to expect. Then firefighter Mark Sheridan arrived and yelled “he did not know what happened, but the windows in his house rattled”. Everyone then knew this would be not ordinary fire. Upon arrival two large storage tanks were fully involved with fire impinging on a others. A large tanker and water shuttle operation was put in place as hand lines cooled the tanks. Any available foam was requested to be brought to the scene. As foam was applied the fire was controlled.
This was the largest mutual aid fire in Laurel’s history. Units responded to the scene from Delmar, Blades, Seaford, Sharptown, Gumboro, Bridgeville, Georgetown, Federalsburg and Greenwood. Hurlock, Salisbury, Denton, Mardela Springs, Pittsville, Milton, Lewes, Dagsboro and Harrington covered for stations at the scene.
In 1987 Laurel again hosted the DVFA for its annual Convention and Parade.
On November 24, 1986 a motion was passed to replace the 1978 Pierce mini-pumper with a 4Wheel Drive unit. The old unit was sold to the Westside Fire Company, of Bivalve, Maryland.
On February 16, 1987 the department voted to replace the 1964 ALF with a Pierce Lance 2000 GPM Engine. This would mark the first time since 1915 that an American LaFrance Engine would not be in Laurel’s station.
On May 7, 1987, Ferris Fields was voted into membership of the Fire Department, becoming the first Afro-American member. Throught the years Ferris has shown dedication to his department, still being an active member today. Ferris was later named Heroic Fireman of the Year by the State of Delaware and the Eastern Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
On March 14, 1988, Wendy Gschwandtner was voted into membership as Laurel's first female firefighter. She followed a long, family tradition of service to her community, as her grandfather was a long time firefighter in Pennsylvania. Wendy would go on to be active in all facets of the fire department, serve as an E.M.S. Officer, Administrative Officer and State Fire School Instructor.
In 1991 it was the decision of the officers to use the Incident Command System of running Fire Scenes. A 1988 GMC Jimmy was purchased from a Fire Department in Pennsylvania and would serve as the first Command Vehicle.
A tragic fire occurred in January of 1993 as a grandmother and her four children died in a house fire within two blocks of the fire station. A child playing with fire was determined to have started the fire.
On June 28, 1993 a motion passed to sell the tractor trailer tanker and replace the 1978 Pierce. An order was placed with Pierce that summer for a 1994 Pierce Sabre and a 1994 Lance Engine Tanker.
Laurel Fire Department has always attempted to be a leader regarding EMS issues. In 1984 Laurel was one of the first Fire Departments to support legislation of a Statewide Paramedic Program. In 1994 the Emergency Medical Service of Sussex County established an award program for those who have dedicated so much. Their service award was named after Past Chief /President Clifford F. Lee, who as a legislator was instrumental in the passage of Paramedic legislation. The first recipient of this award was Laurel’s own Jay Myers, who had served LFD tirelessly for fourteen years.
Incidents occurred throughout the 1990’s where Laurel members were recognized for the heroism. Ferris Fields, Greg Adkins and Steve Flood were all honored for their efforts protecting their fellow citizens.
The night of June 16, 1996 was a busy one, the Delaware State Fire School was conducting an Air Bag Class, Equipment was being cleaned for the Maryland State Convention Parade and plans were being made for the upcoming July 4th celebration. An auto accident was reported north of town on Rt. 13. Jack Northam was doing a repair job to Eng. #1. He walked to the tool box to put tools away before responding. Members entering the station then saw Jack in the floor. He had suffered a fatal heart attack. Jack was Past-President, Past-Chief Engineer and was Past-President of the County Firemen’s Association.
Recent projects have included replacing the heating and air conditioning system in the fire station at a cost of $130,000. In February 1999 a new Command Vehicle was purchased as a Ford Expedition was purchased from the Salisbury Police Department.
As we enter the 21st Century and our second century of existence we look back at our rich history with respect for the individuals that have brought us this far and we look forward to attempting to live up to the example they have set for us. We pray we can lead Laurel Fire Department in a manner that lives up to our motto “Service for Others”.