Newport News Fire Department History
The Newport News Fire Department has a rich history that can be traced back to the summer of 1888 with a post office fire. The entire town responded with a bucket brigade from a nearby spring. Without firefighting equipment, the post office and two stores were consumed by fire. The need for a fire department was evident, but efforts to begin one failed.
After several large fires in 1891 that consumed 26 businesses and homes and killing one elderly woman, an emergency town meeting was held to organize a volunteer fire department. Chief W. K. Stowe was elected as the first fire chief. In 1892, a horse-drawn steamer engine was purchased. Unfortunately, no horses were purchased, so the men had to pull the heavy steamer. Other challenges included the lack of a sufficient water system.
The Board of Fire Commissioners was formed after the City was struck with another major fire in 1896 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company which resulted in a loss of one firefighter and $112,000 in damages.
In 1896 a fire station was built and housed the Chief’s buggy, a steam pump and hose reel.
In 1901, the Newport News Fire Department was starting to take shape. City streets were beginning to be paved and two more fire stations were built. Equipment and personnel were added resulting in a total of 13 paid personnel. The first motorized fire engine was purchased in 1913 and marked the beginning of a new era. In 1918, Chief Stowe recommended to the Board of Fire Commissioners that the Newport News Fire Department become a fully paid department, and by 1919 there were a total of 20 paid personnel. Chief Stowe retired in 1921 and J. B. Gordon became the next Fire Chief.
During the 1920s the fire department continued to grow with the addition of a fifth fire station. More personnel were added and the beginning of the 24 hour shift began.
Chief J. B. Gordon died while fighting a fire at a local radio station. Chief Gordon believed in preventative measures and is quoted as saying, “Teaching children is the best fire protection there is.” J. H. Donnelly became Chief Gordon’s successor and focused his efforts on fire education and organized the City’s first “Fire Prevention Week” parade on October 10, 1934. The Hilton Fire Station was built in 1937.
As of 1947, the Newport News Fire Department had five fire stations, 15 pieces of equipment and 75 paid employees. There were three volunteer companies with 100 personnel.
The year 1958 brought new changes—the beginning of a free ambulance service and fire inspections began with the appointment of Assistant Chief Sparkman. In 1959 and 1962, two additional fire stations were built for a total of nine stations. By 1967, the City had 145 personnel on duty. The annual salary was $5,000 per year.
In 1968, the first African American firefighter was hired. L. L. Orie rose through the ranks and became the first African American Fire Chief.
An Emergency Medical Services Bureau was formed in 1968 and by 1974 included 14 personnel for each platoon.
The first female firefighter was hired and a fire safety education house was purchased in the 1980s. In addition, that department began to cross-train all personnel in fire suppression and emergency services in 1985. During 1986 and 1987 the NNFD implemented the Virginia Fire Reporting System. In 1988, the Newport News Fire Department Hazmat Team was reorganized and became one of five regional response teams in the state.
Current and Future
Today, the Newport News Fire Department is comprised of 11 stations, nearly 400 personnel, and four specialty teams.
New firefighter/medics are trained as Emergency Medical Technician-Intermediate and receive firefighter training through the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy.
A new state-of-the-art Training facility was completed in 2004.
A new Fire Station 3 opened in 2012 and replaced the Historic Hilton Fire Station.