Winthrop Harbor Fire Department Winthrop Harbor Fire Department


The Formation of the Fire Department

In the early days of Winthrop Harbor, if a fire were to break out, the Zion Fire Department has to be called. This resulted in long response times and fire damage was often severe. And so, in 1949, a group of men from Winthrop Harbor formed to purchase a road grader for the Village to use on its roads. This committee had a very successful fund-raising campaign, and decided to organize a volunteer fire department. They formed five committees; Fire, Insurance, Finance, Publicity and Personnel. These groups worked together to rally support for a fire department. It was decided that Delmar Newton would be the fire department's first Fire Chief.

By enacting a referendum, funds were raised to purchase one fire engine and build a two-bay firehouse on Sheridan Road. Volunteers built the first firehouse by hand, with the only costs being for materials. The engine was purchased from FWD Company, and delivery was taken in December of 1949. This was the first step for the new department. The engine was originally stored in a building on Kirkwood Avenue. When the department was organized, the first Chief, Delmar Newton, served for 22 years, the longest serving chief in department history.

Turning Points

When the Fire Department first started in 1949, it was housed in in what is now Fireman Park on Kirkwood Avenue. This building was used temporarily until the fire station was built at 9th Street and Sheridan Road. But with the Fire Department needing to increase in size, the decision was made to expand. In the early 1950's, the first addition was built onto the North side of the existing section. This new section housed the Public Works road grader, until the department's second engine arrived. Both of these additions were built by fire department members.

But when increased call volume and the addition of the fire protection district meant a need for more space, it was decided that another addition to the station was in order. So, in 1972, work began on the third addition. This addition included room for two more vehicles, a work shop area, and a hose tower. Also included in the plan were bunks for when fire personnel were needed to sleep overnight during bad weather or other circumstances.

The fourth and most recent addition that was made to the building was in 1994. This included a new apparatus bay capable of holding all current vehicles. Some of the old apparatus floor was made into offices for the Fire Chief, Secretary, Training Room, Office and Fire Prevention Division.

Also included was a bunk/restroom for the women, and a newly remodeled kitchen and lounge. A training room was also built, utilized by not only the fire department, but all village departments for various classes.

Many forget one of the very important parts of the fire department operations, and that is the way that the firefighters receive information that there is a call.  

In the very early days of the department, the firefighters were notified by a loud, large siren that was on top of the water tower when the station was on Kirkwood Avenue. When the new station on Sheridan Road was built in the early 1950's, the siren was moved with it. For many years this was the only way they were notified. When someone called the fire line, a phone rang in the Chief's Deputy Chief's, the Gas Station across the street, and the Dispatcher's home. They would sound the siren to announce the call.

In the 1970's, a siren/bell system was adopted. With this system, when the siren was sounded, bells - which worked on the telephone - sounded in all of the firefighters' homes.

When the late 1970's rolled around, firefighters got large alert boxes which were set off by radio frequency. This helped eliminate a lot of hassle.

When the Village hired a dispatcher, that person only worked until 11pm. So after that time, a firefighter had to sleep at the station and answer any fire calls, and then activate the paging system. This was in effect until the late 1980's, when the Village went to full-time dispatchers.

Finally, in the 1980's, the firefighters received portable pager-type radios which are still used. There have been many different models, but it is the same system today.

Now, when a call comes in, the dispatcher takes the information and activates the firefighters' pagers via a radio frequency. The pagers let out a loud beeping tone, notifying the firefighter or paramedic that there is a call. The dispatcher then announces the call and the type of situation.

The dispatchers for the Winthrop Harbor Police & Fire Departments play an important role in the fire service. They are the heroes that sometimes are, but never should be, overlooked.

The Winthrop Harbor Emergency Service Disaster Agency (ESDA) has also played a very important role in the fire service. Starting as the Civil Defense for Winthrop Harbor, they were later officially changed to ESDA. Funds from the Civil Defense helped to purchase the second fire engine the department ever had. Still today, they come out to the scene of fires to supply the firefighters with drinks and snacks, and to help by securing areas, directing traffic and other important tasks. These ESDA volunteers are also unsung heroes in the fire service.

Over the years, the department has gone through a lot of change. It has changed many times. Buildings are renovated, firefighters come and go, but the department has always continued to move forward.

Historical Incidents

In the span of 60 years, the Winthrop Harbor Fire Department has had some historic fire and rescue calls, and has been called to aid at some historic incidents in other municipalities. While some of these are not "historic", they are certainly not your average day-to-day calls.

In 1954, the department received a request to respond to Zion for a fire in the downtown area. When the crew arrived, the fire was immense. The Zion Department Store was the main fire area. The Zion Fire Department called for help from all around the county, but lost the battle against the fire that day. The fire was so intense that the street in front of the burning building was also on fire.

In 1959, the Christian Catholic Church was found ablaze. The resulting fire ignited the adjoining building. The fire devastated the school and church. This was one of the largest buildings in Zion at the time. The Zion Fire Department called for help from a number of other agencies during this fire. The Winthrop Harbor Fire Department was on location at this fire aiding Zion with the efforts to bring the blaze under control.

On February 21, 1975, the department received a call that a plane had crashed in the woods near the lakefront. A few witnesses heard popping noises before the large explosion which the plane created as it crashed to the ground. The Fire Department arrived to find only small pieces left. The only large parts left were the tail segment and one wheel assembly. The U.S. Coast Guard arrived moments after the Fire Department and advised the firefighters that the popping noises they heard were the two pilots ejecting from the plane. The two pilots were taken to Great Lakes Naval Hospital and treated, with both surviving their injuries. Fourteen firefighters answered the call for help.

On January 16, 1980, the department received a call for a house explosion. When the fire department arrived, they found a house on Park Avenue fully involved. A plane had hit the home and caused a massive explosion and fire. The Zion Fire Department was called to aid in the extinguishment. The crash also killed the two occupants of the home. The plane had been flying in rain and fog when it crashed into the house. The pilot was also killed in the crash. Fire crews were on location for a little over five hours cleaning up this incident.

The Winthrop Harbor Fire Department has gone mutual aid to Gurnee for a few historic calls over the years. When the old Warren High School burned, the Fire Department was called on to assist in the blaze. Another time was when the widely remembered Rustic Manor Restaurant caught on fire. And in 1991, the department was called to Gurnee to assist on the Holiday Inn fire on Grand Avenue. This fire was large in size, but was extinguished with the aid of nine area fire departments.

Most recently, in February 2008, the Fire Department was called to a fire with Quad-1 departments at North Point Marina. The fire was in a large boat storage building. Due to heavy fire and smoke, WHPD went to a 4th Alarm, receiving mutual aid from 30 fire departments to help fight the fire and protect adjoining structures. The fire was eventually extinguished, and the department was on-scene for over 8 hours.

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