Looking Back: Birmingham’s Fire Department rises from the ashes

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 5, 2017

These days, we take for granted having a fire department with the equipment to handle most any fire that might arise.

It might surprise people to know that until 1927, the Birmingham Fire Department was staffed by volunteers, and the force didn’t even have the necessary gear. As is often the case, it took a tragedy and the ensuing outcry for the then-village to realize it needed a professional staff and equipment.

At 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in July, the alarm sounded at H.G. Field’s store on West Maple Avenue. An employee had filled the furnace with rubbish, causing the gas within to build up to an extent that it blew off the door and spewed flames up to 10 feet away.

Birmingham’s volunteer firefighters arrived on the scene quickly, but unfortunately they could not get water to the fire, which was located toward the back of the building. To make matters worse, billowing thick smoke pushed them further back because they didn’t have gas masks.

The Pontiac Fire Department arrived to deliver aid, but the fire had already grown large enough to require calling the Royal Oak and Ferndale departments, which all brought their own powerful water pumps. The pumps did not have water tanks, and there wasn’t any way to access underground water lines, so their fire hoses had to draw water directly from the Rouge River.

By 12:30 p.m., the fire had been completely put out and the damage could be assessed. The Five and Dime store located in the building suffered a total loss, with over $3,000 of stock destroyed — that’s approximately $42,000 today — and a total of $40,000 in damage, or more than half a million dollars today. Thankfully, there were no fatalities.

Complaints submitted in a letter to the local newspaper were echoed in the increasing concerns of other residents, who lamented that the fire could have been extinguished in minutes had the village had the proper equipment. They demanded that such a thing not happen in their village ever again, leading to the creation of the first paid Birmingham Fire Department in 1927.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at the Birmingham Museum