From it's founding in 1905, up to the mid 1920s, Vernon had no organized fire department. Fire protection was largely the responsibility of local company fire brigades, land owners, and the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Some bordering cities - Maywood, Huntington Park, Bell, etc. - had organized fire departments, but they were very small and committed to their own jurisdictions.
The Beginning 1920's
While the city originally was only 2.3 square miles (now 5.2), from inception Vernon was a planned as an industrial city. As the industrial complex grew, so did the need for increased municipal services, in 1925, a new city hall was built at 4305 Santa Fe Avenue (the same site as the modern city hall, today). It included a two-bay, two-story fire station, even though the Fire Department had yet to be established.
Exact dates are rather unclear, but in the early 1920's, George Minnick was employed as Vernon's first Fire Chief. In about May of 1926, Minnick was replaced by Assistant Chief Joseph Artale. Prior to his hire by Vernon, Artale had been a chief for the Madil, Oklahoma City, and San Bernardino Fire Departments, and had been a firelighter since 1904.
Originally, it had been planned that the Vernon Fire Department would consist of a paid chief, supported by an entirely volunteer staff; however, this idea was short-lived and soon paid/professional firefighters were being hired. The Vernon Fire Department officially commenced operation in early 1926. It consisted of 10 to 11 men, a 1925 American La France hose wagon, a Studebaker pick-up truck - converted to carry hose, and the chief's personal car, an Auburn, to which emergency warning devices had been added.
The American La France (Hose #l) was nicknamed "The Frog", a term common to the American La France at the time. Apparently, these early model hose wagons had an uncanny resemblance to the amphibian. By today's standards, "The Frog" was very primitive and reportedly quite difficult to drive. It was a right hand drive and only had brakes at the rear wheels, mechanical at that. Stopping "on-a-dime" was out of the question. It was usually loaded heavily with 2 1/2" hose, a 50' section of which had a dry weight of about 65 pounds (over double the weight of a modern 2 1/2" stick). In addition. Hose #l had a chemical tank and a hose reel attached. The initial hose complement, according to records, was 3,200' of 2 1/2" and 600' of 1 1/2".
The Studebaker pick-up had an interesting problem; when loaded with wet hose, the vehicle became so light at the front end that the wheels hardly touched the pavement. Many of the early drivers often wondered how the vehicle was never involved in an accident.
In October 1926, a Fire report listed the following personnel, which appears to have included the entire department:
- Chief Artale
- Assistant Chief Schutzback
- Captain Donnelly
- Captain Terrill
- Captain Gibbons
- Fireman Blakemore
- Fireman Evans
- Fireman Moreno
- Fireman Millvaney
- Fireman Kirk (Elmer)
- Fireman Gansneder
In the beginning, the firemen worked a ten hour/fourteen hour schedule, alternating days and nights every other week. Each group would be off 24 consecutive hours, at the end of their night cycle on Saturday. Members of the night shift cycle were sometimes required to come in and perform fire prevention inspections during the day. Vernon Firemen had to be available for recall seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When off duty, they were required to call in and let the department know were they could be contacted, if not at home. Members were granted two weeks vacation during the year; temporary personnel were used to fill spots while they were gone. The Department grew slowly in the early years, with members added only one or two at a time. Starting salary for a fireman was $140 a month in 1927. Overtime was non-existent and the firemen were paid their regular salaries regardless of how many hours they worked.
In those early years, off duty personnel were alerted of fires by a large horn mounted on the station's hose tower. It was similar to a diaphone (fog-type horn) but only used a single tone. Firemen were required to live within a three mile radius of the station, so they could hear this horn that was used in conjunction with a Gamewell Fire alarm system. When a Fire alarm box was pulled, the horn would sound out the box number from which the alarm had come. This gave firefighters a general location of the fire and could thus report directly to the alarm box that had been pulled. Firemen were required to learn the location of all 120 alarm boxes by their corresponding number. The horn also served as a warning for farmers, in the city, to cease irrigation and conserve water for firefighting. This system was reportedly used until the early 1950s.
1930's and 1940's
In 1930, an American La France, tractor drawn, aerial ladder truck was added to the apparatus compliment and was nicknamed both "The Snake"' and "The Lizard". The aerial was operated by manual devices: springs, gears, and hand cranks (as opposed to the modern hydraulically operated ladders of today). When the truck was delivered, the wooden aerial ladder was 65" long; unfortunately, this made the apparatus too long. The solution: ten feet was cut off the end to make it fit.
Fire engines (pumpers) would not become part of the department for more than twenty-five years. The City of Vernon had built a high pressure water system with closely spaced hydrants, to which fire hoses were directly connected. Pressures were controlled from the city pump house at levels requested by the fire department.
Commencing in 1937 and continuing into the 1940s, the fire department fielded a softball team called the Vernon Tigers. The name had earlier been used by a professional, minor league baseball team which had made its home in Vernon, from 1909 until 1925. The fire department softball team was a member of the old Industrial League. Their home playing field was located on the northwest corner of Santa Fe and Vernon Avenues. On occasion, a game would have to be called when team members were needed to fight a fire. At least one championship playoff series was cut short when the Tigers were unable to leave the city to play in Los Angeles. The players had to be available for fire alarms in Vernon.
On Saturday morning, June 15, 1939, Chief Artale was killed in an automobile accident while responding to an alarm from his home. He collided with a tree near the intersection of Gage and Plaska Avenues. What caused him to lose control was never determined; however, some speculated that another car had been involved or that the chief had suffered from a heart attack. Ironically, the alarm had turned out to be of little consequence. To this day, no other Vernon Firefighter has died in the line of duty
In 1942, the department added a remote station, next door to what would eventually become the current Fire Station #l. The remote station was a converted city building and was so small, it was staffed by only three firefighters and hose wagon #3. Quarters were so cramped, the hose wagon had to be pulled out of the building for cleaning and repairs. That same year, ten new firemen were hired bringing the department to nearly 30 people.
Ill the 1930s and 40s, the city still had many undeveloped parcels of land. Since vegetation fires were common, one of the weekend duties of the fire department was burning grass and weeds.
Industry continued to grow during this period, especially in the areas of: manufacturing, livestock slaughtering, and meat packaging. Vernon also had a horse and mule auction, stockyards, an automobile factory (Studebaker), oil refineries, lumber- yards, and chemical plants. As the potential for fire increased, fire prevention activities began to take on greater importance - ultimately leading to the creation of a full time Fire Prevention Inspector position.
During World War II, several department personnel enlisted or were drafted into military service. Some of these men served three to four years fighting for their country. All were granted leaves-of-absence. In later years, other military conflicts would call upon Vernon Firefighters to serve.
Sometime in the mid 1940s, the department work schedule was changed from 10 and 14 hour shifts to the 24 hour shift. A two platoon system was implemented and remained in effect until it was again modified in 1958. At first, officers, engineers, and drivers went to a three-platoon schedule while firefighters remained on a two platoon system. This two-tiered system only lasted until 1963 when a full three platoon schedule was implemented. The same schedule is in affect today.
In 1953, Assistant Chief Lester Husted succeeded Frank Donelly as Fire Chief and remained in that position until his retirement in 1971. Chief Husted had been a member of the fire department since 1927. He served a total of 44 years; to this date, he has had the longest career in the department's history. While serving as chief, the department experienced its greatest growth, both in manpower and apparatus.
Vernon Fire bought its first engine (pumper) in 1954. It was a Crown - triple combination, with a 1250 CPM centrifugal pump, 500 gallon water tank, and a 974 cubic inch Hall-Scott gasoline engine. In 1957, Vernon purchased another Crown Pumper; however, it was powered by a LeRoi V8 engine. The LeRoi engine did not prove itself a good power source and its use was soon abandoned in favor of the Hall-Scott, inline six cylinder engine.
Transition to the use of pumpers was slow and the new engines were used largely as hose wagons, in the beginning. However, pumpers would soon prove their value for controlling fire stream pressures at the scene of an alarm. As a result of the new engines, the rank of Engineer was instituted in 1955.
Department growth in the early 1950s remained at a slow and steady pace with manpower numbering in the 40s. City growth, however, created a need for more fire stations. In 1955, a new fire station was built at 3375 Fruitland. Since this building was bigger than the City Hall station and could house the department administration. Fire Prevention Bureau, and Communications Center, it soon became Fire Headquarters and was designated Station #l. It had large apparatus bays and could accommodate up to 20 firefighters.
At this time, the manpower compliment rose to 55 members, including a Fire Alarm Superintendent and assistant, a Fire Prevention Inspector, and a Fire Department Mechanic. The department also purchased its first medical rescue unit - a 1955 Ford panel truck.
The year 1957 saw the hiring of 15 new members and they were trained in Vernon Fire's first official fire academy; prior to that year, firefighters were hired in small numbers and trained on the job. The department was now made up of 78 personnel.
In October 1959, the city annexed the area north of the Los Angeles River, east of Indiana Ave. - to Atlantic Blvd. The area had been a part of the Los Angeles County, East Los Angeles Fire Protection District up to that time. As part of the annexation, the city acquired the old Los Angeles County Fire Department, Engine Station #101, at 4530 Bandini Blvd., as well as the fire alarm system protecting the area. Vernon paid L.A. County Fire District $36,816.25 for the annexation and took over fire protection on July 1, 1960. The station was designated Station #4 and an engine and hose wagon were both housed there.
Another station was added at 2800 Soto St. in early 1961. A new Crown pumper (Engine #11) and a Yankee Foam & Manifold Unit went into service that year and were housed at the new station. In 1962, the new station at City Hall was finished and the older station was consigned to use as storage until its demolition in 1976. By this time, the number of fire personnel had risen to 115.
Also in 1961, a Van Pelt 75 foot articulating arm, elevating platform truck (Hi-Ranger Mobile Aerial Tower) was delivered, adding a second ladder truck to the apparatus compliment. It was quite an addition for it was one of the earliest of it's kind. Originally designated Truck #15 and then later Truck #2, it remained in service until 1988. It was reportedly sold and used as a mobile maintenance platform for work on wind generators out near Palm Springs.
Throughout much of the late 1950' and 1960s, the department grew in reputation as one of the most progressive fire departments in the Western United States. Vernon often served as a test site for many new innovations in fire apparatus and equipment during this period. The addition of a pump test pit at Station #1, in 1957, provided Vernon with another innovative tool. Now Vernon could test its pumpers without them leaving the city. As a testament to the quality and rarity of the test pit, at least two manufacturers - Crown Coach and Seagrave/Hirsch Company and numerous other cities used the Station #1 site to test their pumps. In 1959 alone, 24 engines from other departments (from San Diego to Las Vegas) were tested in Vernon.
A new communications Center was completed at Station#1, in 1962. The system was a telephone based PBX type with a split-table console for large or multiple alarms. All emergency dispatches came from this center. The old street box fire alarm system, which had served the city for so many years, now pasted into the pages of history.
The new system was set up with remote phone boxes that rang directly into the Communications Center switchboard, thus providing voice contact with the reporting person. This system served Vernon for 24 years until it too was replaced in 1986. The latest system replaced firefighter dispatchers with civilians and assigned functional supervision to the police department. Also, dispatch was removed from Station #1 and relocated to the basement of City Hall.
During the early 1960s, the department was involved with Crown Coach in the development of diesel powered fire apparatus; an important step in firefighting because diesel engines have greater torque/power and are also less likely to stall when blanketed by smoke. As a result, an order was placed in 1963 for two, 2000 GPM triple combination Crown pumpers. They were powered by Cummins NT380, 855 cubic inch, turbo-charged diesel engines. Each could supply eight 2 1/2" handlines simultaneously. They became the pride of the department's pumper fleet. Designated Engines #9 and #12, they were among the earliest of a rare breed of huge pumping capacity engines ever built.
Throughout the 1960s the department continued its growth. By 1965, Vernon employed 129 fire personnel and owned 26 vehicles, including: eight engines, five hose wagons, an elevating platform ladder truck, and aerial ladder truck, a foam and manifold unit, two medical response units, two utility vehicles, and six cars. In addition, Vernon fire had the use of two military style jeeps and an old Dodge weapons carrier, which had been converted into a mobile fuel dispenser.
The department reached its peak number of employees in 1970, with a total of 132 people. That same year an 85' Van Pelt elevating platform ladder truck was purchased. It replaced the old aerial ladder truck - Truck 16 - which was sold to the City of Lindsay, CA. It was later purchased by the Fresno Fire Department and proudly displayed in the Fresno Fire Museum.
The 1970s saw the onset of changes which would ultimately result in a restructuring of the fire department organization during the ensuing years. First, fire resistive construction, sprinklered buildings, reduction in hazardous processes due to a decline in heavy manufacturing, and other factors were resulting in fewer and less devastating fires. Second, internal and external forces both economic and labor related led the City Administration to begin looking for ways to downsize the department.
On September 1, 1974, Fred Colvin was appointed Chief and remained in the position until his retirement in 1978. He had been with the department since 1947, serving much of his career as head of the Fire Prevention Bureau.
Battalion Chief George Bass was appointed Chief in 1978. He began working for Vernon Fire in 1953. Chief Bass had been widely known as "Smokey", dating back to his childhood. His childhood nickname stayed with him because he often smelled of smoke from the many fires he attended. He was a Firefighter to the core; even his vacations included visits to fire stations all over the country. Smokey initiated a new recruitment and hiring process, which led to ten new firefighters joining the department in January of 1987. Since that date, 19 recruit classes have graduated and joined the ranks. In 1988 Smokey purchased a new 1988 Seagrave 100 foot Ariel Ladder Truck (Tiller). He retired from the department in January of 1988.
On February 15, 1988 Battalion Chief Larry Spadt was appointed Chief. During his tenure, the City of Vernon was awarded the covenant Class #1 Fire Department rating by the Insurance Service Office (ISO). The rating Class # 1 has been held ever since and the businesses in the city have benefited with millions of dollars in insurance savings. Chief Spadt purchased two new 1989 Seagrave 1,500 GPM Engines and in 1992 Chief Spadt introduced the Hazardous Material Response Program and was in the process of implementing this component when he retired in 1992. Chief Spadt understood the importance of this program in an industrial city such as Vernon.
Battalion Chief Dave Telford received his appointment to Chief on October 18, 1992. Chief Telford was known as a world traveler, having vacationed in places ranging from the exotic to the extreme; twice to the Antarctic, to just to give an example. Chief Telford guided the Vernon Fire Department into the 21st Century and was instrumental in modernizing the fire department. Chief Telford felt strongly about the Hazardous Material Program and brought it to its full potential by purchasing a state of the art Spartan Super-Vac Haz Mat unit and training more than half the department to the Specialist Level. He continued to update equipment, standard operating procedures and policies. Chief Telford brought technology to the department by linking computers with servers and utilizing data bases to track reports. He purchased new frontline Seagrave Engines that were added to each station, a new LTI Ladder Truck was put in service in 1998, and a new Urban Search and Rescue unit was purchased the year to follow. Chief Telford was a disciplinary who believed in an educated and developed fire department. Training was an fundamental to him, as he consistently pushed the department to become a force by training new recruits at the local academy level. Chief Telford retired in July of 2000.
Fire Chief Parker was appointed on February 5, 2001 with a 27 year career in the fire service. He was the first Fire Chief hired from outside the Vernon Fire Department in its history. Chief Parker has served with the Huntington Beach and Buena Park Fire Departments. Chief Parker assisted the Department in its transitional period bringing a wealth of experience with him at a time when a strong leader was needed. He made vast improvements in our delivery model and continued the rich tradition of Class #1 service as the ISO rating was awarded for the second time in Vernon history. Chief Parker retired in June 30, 2004, but remained a contract employee until June 2005.
On June 23, 2005 Mark Whitworth was appointed Fire Chief. Hired by Vernon in 1989, he worked his way through the ranks, until his appointment to Fire Chief. Chief Whitworth is a native of the San Gabriel Valley. Chief Whitworth, as his predecessors before him, continued to place a high priority on professionalism and uncompromised service. With emphasis on Homeland Security and regional interoperability, mutual and automatic aid agreements have been enhanced with surrounding jurisdictional Fire Departments. Projects of importance pursued were the replacement of Fire Station #2 and the purchase of new frontline apparatus including a new Haz Mat Unit. Chief Whitworth was a huge advocate of the grant process, bringing many grant funded projects to the fire department. He coordinated grants that funded our Haz Mat and USAR programs. Purchasing new equipment and completing the goal of all personnel trained Specialist Level in Hazardous Materials exceeded the expectations of any past Chief’s. The USAR program has 95% of fire personnel trained to the specialist level and both programs carry a Type #1 Heavy State Certification. The USAR program is a participant in the California State Regional USAR Task Force system certified as the RTF#2. During his tenure, many programs were initiated or improved as we moved forward in technology and efficiency. The Fire Department portion of the Communication Center was moved to the Regional Joint Powers Communication Center (JPCC) in Downey, and better alerting systems were initiated in the stations. Under Chief Whitworth’s leadership, the Paramedic Program was brought into the fold of the Vernon Fire Department, adding several paramedic firefighters to the department and our ISO rating was again re-affirmed as Class #1. In July of 2010, Chief Whitworth was appointed Interim City Administrator, while continuing his duties as Fire Chief, and assumed the responsibility of both positions at no additional compensation. In 2011, he oversaw the successful efforts to stave off the attempted disincorporation of the City by the State through Assembly Bill 46. In December 2012, Whitworth relinquished his Fire Chief position upon the recommendation of Former State Attorney General and Vernon Independent Reform Monitor, John Van De Kamp, to concentrate exclusively on his duties as City Administrator.
Michael A. Wilson was appointed Fire Chief May 7, 2013. Chief Wilson served the Vernon Fire Department for 28 years prior to his retirement on 10/29/2016. He rose through the ranks from Firefighter to Fire Chief, including 17 years as a Battalion Chief, covering every aspect of the fire department. Even prior to his appointment as Fire Chief, Chief Wilson had a major influence on the direction of the fire department. Having worked under five former Chiefs, he coordinated many projects and programs including managing the ISO audits in 2001 and 2010 both resulting in a coveted Class 1 rating. Chief Wilson believed in a highly trained, professionally developed, and educated fire department which understands the importance of excellence in customer service, and ethical leadership.