The Galveston Fire Department
PHOTOS Scott Pena
Galveston has gone through many changes since 1528 when Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca declared it the “Isle of Doom” after being shipwrecked in the area.
As time passed and Galveston began to develop, so too did its need for fire protection. In 1841, the first volunteer fire company was created after a fire consumed several structures in downtown. Early fire companies were volunteer organizations and typically had little-to-no affiliation with any of the other fire companies. In fact, it was normal for the fire companies to engage in fistfights in the yards of burning homes to determine who would attempt to extinguish the fire.
As the Civil War began, all able men were sent to fight, and Galveston’s fire protection was reduced to a few residents who remained on the island. In the late 1860s, the fire companies began to re-establish. There were several conflagrations between 1869 and 1884, and each fire resulted in a growing debate about the city having one organized fire department.
In 1884, following a major fire on The Strand at 24th Street, the City of Galveston finally decided to establish a fire department. As one may imagine, this was met with great resistance by the volunteer fire companies. In November 1885, the Galveston Fire Department was established and became the first paid fire department in the state of Texas.
On a cold, windy November night, two short weeks after the department was established, a fire broke out at the foundry located at 17th Street and The Strand. The fire, driven by strong winds, quickly spread across the island. The fire ultimately consumed more than 175 structures and came to be known as the Great Fire of 1885.
The GFD struggled through the devastating 1900 hurricane. In one account, fire companies pushed through flooded streets to reach a house fire. Just as they arrived shortly after 1 pm on that fateful day, the house collapsed. In an effort to salvage the fire apparatus, firefighters returned to their stations, forcing the horses to swim in up to five feet of water.
In the days, weeks and years to follow, the department struggled to rebuild. The fire chief, Ernest Wegner, had the task of securing new horses, fire apparatus and stations, all while ensuring the department continued to protect the citizens who were working so hard to rebuild Galveston.
By the 1950s, the department had grown to more than 117 men and twelve fire stations, with the city limits ending at 61st Street. As the city expanded west, new fire stations were needed. At the same time, technology in fire apparatus was advancing. As new apparatus arrived, it was decided fewer fire stations would be needed. While some stations were re-located west, others were simply closed.
Today, the Galveston Fire Department has 115 members under the direction of Fire Chief Charlie Olsen. Galveston firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Each shift, they staff six engines, two ladder trucks and two battalion chiefs from six fire stations across the island. There are also several support vehicles, such as brush trucks and boats put into service when needed.
The department protects a population that ranges from 50,000 to well over 500,000, based on the season, and they respond to more than 7,000 calls per year.
Historical summary provided by the Galveston Fire Department.