OSFD History

A Century of Proud Service
History Highlights of the

Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1, Inc.
1924-2024

BY TONY CRONIN

Fire Company Secretary 


It began with an earnest commitment: to serve the town as volunteers against the threat of fire.

In the beginning, there was only one fire truck, donated by a former resident, and a roster of 33 members who pledged their time to protect Old Saybrook from the threat of fire.

It was a modest, but proud, beginning of the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1, Inc. Over the past century, the company has grown into a highly sophisticated firefighting force with some of the finest equipment on the shoreline, whose members are trained to fight fires and handle emergencies ranging from boat rescues to motor-vehicle extrications. But it would not have been possible if it were not for that small handful of citizens in the early 1920s who believed that the Town of Old Saybrook needed its own volunteer fire department.

Ours is indeed a proud history, dating back to August 26, 1924, when the company was chartered under the command of its first fire chief, Gordon B. Smith. With a sole engine, an American LaFrance Chemical Engine, the firefighting force began to grow from its initial complement of 33 charter members as of Sept. 10, 1924. Today, inside our firehouse, there remains a proud testament to those early years: A brass marker that appeared on that first truck remains framed in the chief’s office as a reminder of our continuing heritage as a volunteer force serving the Town of Old Saybrook.

The first firehouse was a one-stall shed behind the Town Hall. It served the town well, until a larger “Fire Engine House” was constructed in the late 1930s, also behind the Town Hall. Today’s firehouse was opened to the department in November 1961 and has served the department well ever since. Many chiefs gave their service to the town from the old firehouse, and its red wooden letters proclaiming “Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1” still adorn the department’s firehouse today, reminding both the old and the new that theirs is a department with a tradition of service to the public. 

In 1950, a year after the purchase of the department’s initial attack truck, the department began using its first self-contained breathing apparatus, whose successor units are a vital piece of our firefighting arsenal. Today’s highly trained volunteers rely on their self-contained breathing apparatus (or SCBA) for a variety of functions, from penetrating the smoky curtain of a structure fire to protecting our firefighters in a hazardous-materials situation.

Ever the progressive fire department, the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No.1became only the third department in the county to use radios to alert firefighters to a call. Those initial Plectron paging devices during the 1950s would seem archaic compared with today’s small radio pagers that every firefighter wears, but it was the beginning of a modern era for the department, and it hailed the radio age that most of us now take for granted. Yet back then, those Plectrons were an essential tool in ensuring a rapid response, whenever the call, wherever it was. Today, all our officers carry portable radios, and the department relies on numerous radio frequencies to assist firefighters at emergencies in Old Saybrook and beyond.

During the early 1960s the department moved into its spacious new firehouse on Main Street. The new firehouse provided space for the department to grow and is filled today with a variety of firefighting apparatus — three engines, a rescue vehicle, a ladder truck, a marine unit, and several other vehicles. In 1999, the town approved an extensive renovation of the firehouse that continues to accommodate the needs of this growing department.

While our all-volunteer department has milestones too numerous to mention, there are many historic highlights during the past 100 years that the department wants to share, courtesy of department minutes of meetings and other historical documents, so enjoy this decade-by-decade stroll through our history.

The 1920s: A Decade of Growth

  • The first American LaFrance engine operated by the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1 was donated by former resident Finlay J. Shepard of New York when the department was formally organized in 1924.
  • That same year, the articles and bylaws of the department were accepted and adopted governing the new fire company, and each member paid a quarter for a key to the firehouse behind Town Hall.
  • As part of those bylaws, it was agreed that each member of the new fire department would pay dues toward the maintenance of the organization, which amounted to one dollar a year, payable in advance.
  • In 1926, the company agreed to write to American LaFrance to inquire about the cost of installing a pumping apparatus on the engine, and the company also agreed that same year to respond to all grass fires, so long as they were called in.
  • The following year, a Dodge hose wagon was purchased for the fire company from the local Dodge dealer.
  • In 1928, the company agreed to divide itself into squads that would consist of drivers, “pumpmen,” hosemen, and hydrant men. As a result, the chief announced that there would be a weekly drill each Monday night under the direction of an officer to “perfect the men in handling of the apparatus.” The chief also notified his men that such drills would continue “until further notice.”
  • In 1929, the department’s first chief, Gordon B. Smith, told the company that he could no longer serve in that position because he was appointed Postmaster to the Town of Old Saybrook.

The 1930s: A Progressive 10 Years

  • Gordon B. Smith, the department’s first chief, resigned in 1930 and was succeeded by the new fire chief, James Dibble.
  • A year later, the company agreed to sound the town’s fire horn with one long blast after each fire to tell all the residents that the fire had been extinguished.
  • In 1932, the school principal at the time requested that the fire department’s horn blow two blasts when only one session of school would be held and added that such blasts were to be blown “at 10 a.m. sharp.”
  • In 1934, Chief Dibble requested from the selectmen that water be supplied to the firehouse and unemployed firefighters were to be used to dig the trench for the piping.
  • By the mid-1930s, members of the fire company who died due to “natural causes” would receive $500 in insurance. But each member was to be assessed 10 cents for every death suffered by the fire company.
  • In 1938, the department resolved that a memorial tablet to honor deceased firefighters Thomas Kerwin and Fred Stokes be prepared to stand in front of the firehouse.
  • In the summer of 1938, a special town meeting approved the spending of $30,000 for the construction of a new Fire Engine House at the rear of the Town Hall, but which would face Sheffield Street.

The 1940s: Service During the War Years

  • In January, the department sold its Brockway LaFrance engine to the Broad Brook Fire Department in East Windsor, which purchased the vehicle for $300. The department requested a deposit of $150; the balance was paid on delivery.
  • In 1940, the department agreed that any member drafted under the new Conscription Act would retain his membership during his period of service to his country.
  • Two years later, the department agreed to “send smokes to the fellows in the service who use them, and gifts to the others for Christmas.”
  • In 1942, the department adopted a schedule for a crew to sleep in the firehouse, but in January of the following year, the question of the department members sleeping in the firehouse was discussed and the fire company agreed to stop the practice.
  • That same year, firefighter Ray Savelli announced his departure from the fire company “to join the armed forces.” 
  • In 1943, it was ordered that any firefighter at the town’s movie theater when the air raid warning sounded was to report immediately to the firehouse.
  • On March 17th, 1947, a special meeting was called by the department for a solemn occasion: to discuss arrangements relating to the death of 1st Assistant Chief Arthur Harrington. The chief died of a heart attack at a fire at Harvey Wright’s house. The fire began as an unattended rubbish fire that quickly spread across the grass and ran up the side of the shingled house. Chief Harrington fell ill as he ran back to the fire truck to tell the firefighters that the house was now burning.
  • In 1949, Clifford Patterson was elected chief and in January of that year the department accepted the delivery of a new tank truck, called Combat Engine One, which carried 850 gallons of water with a 200-gallon-per minute pump capacity. The concept of a first-due combat, or attack, engine continues to this day in the department.

The 1950s: Rocking and Rolling Along

  • By the early 1950s, the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1 was growing, as was the town that it served. The department’s proud inventory showed a 750-gallon Seagrave pumper, an 800-gallon tank wagon, a 500-gallon pumper, an emergency squad truck and two Scott air packs among the variety of firefighting gear stowed in the firehouse or on the trucks.
  • In 1950, the department estimated that it had saved some $48,000 worth of property, while losing about $10,000 in property to fire. Over the past year, the company reported a total of 63 alarms, 47 of which were grass fires. But it did report that one of the emergency calls resulted in the saving of a man’s life by the “quick response and use of the Scott Air Pak by members of the Fire Department.”
  • On Oct. 22nd, 1951, the department became an officially incorporated entity, with the official name of the organization “The Old Saybrook Fire Company No. 1.” Among its articles of incorporation were “to promote educational work in firefighting, elimination of the causes of fire; to foster and develop a spirit of civic pride among the people of Old Saybrook so as to eliminate all causes of fire, fire hazards, and fire damage.”
  • During the December 1953 meeting, the department decided to buy a Model T Ford. According to the minutes of that meeting, “a hat was passed and $23.50 was collected.”
  • Four years later, the department agreed to form a committee to investigate the purchase of an additional piece of equipment. That same year, 1957, Mack Trucks offered an estimate of about $21,000 for a 750-gallon- per-minute pumper that included an 800- gallon booster tank, air brakes, and “extra equipment” including power steering and a hose body. The following year, after looking at a variety of other equipment, a new Mack 750 GPM pumper was purchased for the department.
  • In 1958, a special meeting was called by the department to “consider the topic of taking over an old Army DUK” under the auspices of the Civil Defense. After a lengthy discussion, a vote was taken and the company voted 16 to 5 to acquire the DUK, a hybrid vehicle that can travel over land or in the water. But a year later, the enthusiasm seemed to pale, and the minutes of the July meeting in 1959 showed that “discussion of the DUK was had and it was voted to drop further interest or use of it.”  Yet two years later, the department would take over the amphibious DUK from the Civil Defense corps.

The 1960s: A Serious Decade for the Department

  • In the early 1960s, with Fire Chief Clifford Patterson at the helm, the department purchased Clark Field on Elm Street to serve as a recreational area for the fire department and for others to use. Today, Clark Field features innovative training facilities that are used by the Old Saybrook department and other shoreline departments, along with a baseball field, a pavilion, and a banquet hall.
  • In 1961, the department initiated several measures, including the appointment of a dive team and full 24-hour dispatching for all calls. The present firehouse on Main Street also was completed that year, which saw a new chief elected, Francis J. Rutty.
  • Two years later, in 1963, the department commissioned a 1,000-gallon GMC tanker truck to serve the growing outlying areas of town where hydrants were not readily available, and a thousand gallons of water could make the difference between some property damage and the total loss of a house.
  • The decade of the 1960s also saw two fire fatalities, which always causes great concern to firefighters committed to protecting property and saving lives. In 1967, there was a fatal fire on Sunrise Avenue in the Floral Park section of town that took the life of a 50-year-old man. Two years later, a 16-year- old girl perished in a fatal fire on Homestead Street. Two firefighters, Chet Phillips and Bert Johnson, along with Police Officer John McConochie, were overcome by smoke attempting to rescue the girl.

The 1970s: Five Decades of Service

  • The decade began with Chief Edward Bushnell Jr. replacing outgoing Chief William Crockett. In the early 1970s the old original fire horn that had been located at the Town Hall was replaced by a new fire horn at the new firehouse on Main Street.
  • In 1972, a fire in the rear section of a home on Park Avenue in the Fenwood section took the life of a local resident. The fire heavily damaged the house and was the third fatality in five years for the department.
  • By the early 1970s, the Old Saybrook Fire Department had grown tremendously. From its beginnings in 1924 with one donated fire engine and 33 volunteers, the department now had a roster of 65 members, 10 probationary members, a tanker truck, two fire engines, a high-pressure brush truck, a generator truck with lighting capability, and a DUK amphibious vehicle for shoreline rescues.
  • The year 1974 was a momentous one for the fire department, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a yearlong celebration that included a firefighters’ parade on August 24th that was attended by more than 35 departments from across the state. A dance was held that evening at Clark Field that featured two bands and the awarding of trophies to the various departments that competed in the judging of apparatus. The general chairman of the anniversary celebration was Deputy Fire Chief Coleman Bushnell, and former Fire Chief William Crockett headed the parade committee.
  • That same year in August, a special town meeting approved the purchase of a Pierce 75-foot aerial truck, among the first such aerial ladder trucks on the shoreline for a purchase price of $132,658 – a bargain by today’s aerial truck prices. The ladder truck was delivered to the town in 1976, the same year it was put into service.
  • In 1978, the Board of Selectmen recommended that Old Saybrook purchase a Hurst “Jaws of Life” extrication tool that could free victims involved in motor vehicle accidents or other serious incidents. The town also recommended purchasing the entire Hurst tool system, including a power unit, chain shackles, grab hooks, cutters, automatic jaws, a hose package, and hydraulic fluid.
  • The close of the decade included the tragic death of a volunteer firefighter. Henry “Gator” Davis, a 36-year-old firefighter from 40 Middletown Avenue, died of a heart attack while answering an early morning fire alarm at a house on nearby Schenker Avenue. Despite the efforts of two firefighters trained in first aid and CPR, Davis was transported by ambulance to Middlesex Hospital in Middletown where he was pronounced dead upon his arrival. Chief Ron Baldi said that “Firefighter Davis was one of many firefighters responding to an alarm ready to preserve life and protect property, passing away while performing in the line of duty.”

The 1980s: Building on a Proud Heritage

  • During the early part of the 1980s, it was recognized that an all-volunteer firefighting force would need new recruits in the coming years, and with the election of Coleman Bushnell as fire chief on January 2nd, 1985 -- almost 14 years to the date on which his father was elected to the office -- the department “has been asked to test its commitment to the volunteer fire service.” While maintaining its strong commitment to the volunteer service, the department did recognize that the rising cost of living in Old Saybrook could crimp future volunteers, and growing federal regulations also were requiring more training time for the volunteers.
  • Later that decade, recognizing that a growing town needs a growing, vibrant fire department, members of the department began a much-publicized recruiting program in 1988 and in 1989 that brought in new recruits to the department, some of whom remain active members today. That special recruitment drive was later cited in 1990 by the national Firehouse magazine, which awarded the department with a Community Service Award for its innovative recruitment drive.
  • In August 1985, the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1 received a certificate of appreciation from the 350th Anniversary Committee of the Saybrook Colony (1635-1985) as having “served faithfully and well in The Founders Day Parade” in Old Saybrook.
  • In 1988, the “old Engine Two,” a 1958 Mack pumper that was taken out of service in 1984, was sold to two Old Saybrook firefighters for the tidy sum of $200. During its final days, the old engine had been used by the town’s transfer station crew as a backup piece in the event of a fire. The engine was extensively refurbished -- some $4,000 was reportedly spent -- by the two Old Saybrook volunteers and old Engine 2 was later sold to a volunteer fire department in Roby, Missouri for $4,500.
  • That same year, the fire department saw the delivery of its new Emergency One heavy-duty rescue truck, Rescue 391. The former rescue vehicle it replaced became a mobile air unit and a mask-service vehicle. The E-One rescue carried an array of rescue equipment from the “Jaws of Life” to emergency medical gear. The interior of the truck also served as a mobile command center, fully equipped with an arsenal of radios, charts, maps and reference books for any type of emergency facing the fire department.

The 1990s: A Commitment to Excel

  • The department’s marine equipment continued to grow during the 1990s as a Department of Environmental Protection marine boat that had been used by the Old Saybrook Police Department was transferred to the fire department. The powerful boat was equipped with two outboards, a fire pump and plenty of storage space. At the close of the decade, the department continued its commitment to marine rescues by putting into service a new jet ski that complemented the department’s dual-engine fire boat and special-response Zodiac boat.
  • And it was also during this decade that the department proudly accepted ownership of an Emergency One fire engine, which was christened as Engine 361, the department’s initial attack apparatus. Engine 361 was the first piece of department equipment to feature an extended cab giving firefighters room to put on their gear, if necessary, as they proceeded to the scene of a fire. The 1,000-gallon engine featured its own generator, a deck gun, and a front bumper mounted attack line among its many features.
  • In 1998, the department agreed to establish the position of a department president, who would preside over portions of the monthly meeting and serve as the chief administrative officer, while the chief of the department would remain its chief executive officer. Former Deputy Chief Jacqueline Gearity was proudly elected in 1999 to serve as the fire department’s first president.
  • Also in 1998, the newly formed Junior Firefighter program gained in stature, attracting academically strong high school students to the department to assist firefighters, under the direction of an officer, at the scene of fires or other emergencies. The department’s Juniors have become an integral part of this progressive department, which can boast of a diverse membership spanning many ages.
  • In April of 1999, the townspeople approved the purchase of a Sutphen 95-foot tower truck, the first “bucket style” aerial truck in the department’s history, which continues to serve the needs of a growing town and its expanding commercial and residential interests. 

The Years 2000-2010: Pride and Progress

  • The department proudly took delivery in the year 2000 of its brand new Sutphen mid-mount aerial ladder truck, capable of reaching 95 feet in height and featuring a 1,500 gallon-per-minute pump and a 300-gallon water tank. This impressive new piece of equipment provided our department with immense new capabilities, especially as the town continued to expand with new multi-story commercial and residential structures.
  • In 2001, the various upgrades and renovations to our Old Saybrook Fire Headquarters were completed, including an entire new bay to house one of our engines, expanded office and meeting space, and a new sloped roof over the four bays that replaced a flat roof.
  • Four years later, our new Ferrara fire engine was put into service and the new engine proudly took 1st Place for Best Custom Pumper in the Connecticut State Firefighters Convention.
  • After many years of inactivity, in 2007 the Regional Firefighters Competition was restored and the OSFD took home nine winning trophies and top honors at the regional firefighters’ event that included rigorous competition from six area fire departments.
  • Our new 2008 Pierce Velocity Rescue Apparatus was expected to arrive in town by mid-December and was placed into full service by our department in January 2009 featuring an array of rescue tools and equipment designed for a multitude of operations.
  • The well-attended christening of the OSFD’s new fire rescue boat was held on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010, at Saybrook Point followed by a celebratory picnic for all the attendees and fire department personnel. In honor of our fire department’s first Fire Chief the boat was named Gordon B. Smith and placed into the water by May 2010, and by the following month had already responded to six calls.

The Years 2011-2020: Achievements and a Milestone Anniversary

  • Our department’s highly trained Rapid Intervention Team was asked in 2011 to expand its response area to provide this life-saving firefighter service to both the Flanders and Niantic fire departments in East Lyme. Over the years, our RIT team has provided assistance at the scene of many working fires and other incidents to those fire departments, ready to rescue trapped or injured firefighters.
  • In 2012, Hurricane Sandy created storm-related damage to our town, and our then-Chief J.T Dunn proudly reported that 55 firefighters and 4 veterans provided storm coverage throughout the hurricane. There were almost 50 runs from Monday night through Tuesday morning. The cooperation among Old Saybrook’s first responders, including police and EMS, was outstanding as were the brave acts by our firefighters.
  • In 2014, the Old Saybrook Fire Department celebrated its 90th Anniversary with a gala party on the Town Green. An estimated 300 to 400 residents, town officials, and business representatives attended and enjoyed ample pot-luck contributions, great food and music, an open house at fire headquarters, as well as a parade of mutual-aid apparatus to celebrate this milestone anniversary for our volunteer department.
  • Our department celebrated its newest engine’s arrival in 2015: a Pierce Velocity engine featuring a 1,000-gallon tank, a 20-gallon foam cell, and a 1,500 gallon-per-minute Hale Pump as well as the latest technical advances to supply many years of service to our department.
  • The year 2015 also saw the unexpected passing of our revered Past Chief David G. Heiney Sr., who passed on February 10th of that year. Chief Heiney was greatly respected for his welcoming and warm personality, his deep sense of humor and humility, and his immense firefighting and fire technology expertise that was respected locally, regionally, and across the state. A full-honors funeral was attended by hundreds who paid their final respects to Chief Heiney, and the June 2015 Regional Firefighters Competition was dedicated to Past Chief David G. Heiney Sr.
  • Two years later, on June 8, 2017, our department was again saddened by the passing of Fire Company President and Past Chief Ron Baldi. Chief Baldi served for 50 years with our department in a variety of roles. During his impressive 10 years as chief our membership was opened to women and those aged 18 and older. He also was President of our fire company for 15 years until his passing in 2017. Our Banquet Hall at Clark Memorial Field is proudly named in his honor.
  • Past Chief Edward C. Bushnell Jr. passed away on Oct. 12th, 2018, and full fire department and military honors were accorded for this heavily decorated veteran. Chief Bushnell’s dedication to the town of Old Saybrook was evidenced in the Bushnell family’s combined 118 years of service with the Old Saybrook Fire Co. No. 1, where Edward Bushnell served as Chief of the Department from 1971 to 1973. His predeceased father, Edward Sr. was a Charter Member of the Fire Department, and his son Coleman provided many years of dedicated service as the town’s Chief of Department as well as Old Saybrook’s Fire Marshal.
  • In 2019, Chief of Department Joseph Johnson presented Firefighter and Past Deputy Chief Jackie Gearity with her new Vice President's Badge as the fire company's first person to hold the newly created rank of Vice President of the Old Saybrook Fire Company No. 1. 

The Years 2021-2024: Preparing for a Proud Century of Service

  • Our department proudly welcomed our two newest fire engines during the year 2020. Our new Pierce Enforcer engines feature a 1,000-gallon water tank, a 20-gallon foam cell, and a 1,500 gallon-per-minute Hale Pump in addition to their numerous other advanced features and equipment.
  • This decade also saw the formation of our 100th Anniversary Committee, which was tasked with overseeing the many logistics involved with this celebration of our century of service. An afternoon parade of our fire department’s members and equipment, along with numerous other fire departments from the shoreline and across the state, was set for Saturday, August 24th, 2024 (with a rain date of Sunday, August 25th) and would be celebrated in style by parading all the apparatus and firefighters and officers down Old Saybrook’s Main Street. Following the parade, a gala anniversary celebration is planned at Clark Memorial Field and will be attended by our invited fire departments and their members and officers. 
  • In 2023, our department celebrated the completion of our newest training facility consisting of retrofitted shipping containers offering our firefighters a myriad of advanced training techniques and operations, including specialized training windows, a forced-door entry system and areas for rooftop operations such as cutting ventilation holes in roofing materials.
  • Our highly decorated Past Chief David G. Heiney Sr. was posthumously honored as a Class of 2024 Inductee to the Connecticut State Firefighters Association’s Hall of Fame during the association’s Hall of Fame awards ceremony in April. This top statewide honor recognized Past Chief Heiney for his demonstrated strong and strategic leadership of the fire service, his unswerving dedication toward the continuous improvement of the fire service’s members and their officers and his numerous contributions and commitment over many decades of service to the Old Saybrook Fire Department as well as our surrounding mutual aid departments. 
  • To further highlight the town of Old Saybrook’s immense respect and deep gratitude to the Old Saybrook Fire Department’s 100 years of stellar and dedicated service to our town and to the many surrounding communities through our mutual aid assistance, a townwide celebration of our volunteer fire company is planned for October 2024 on our Town Green.
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