From Phil Stenholm:

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department



Two major fires occurred in Evanston within about a month of each other in early 1974. The Evanston Fire Department battled an extra alarm fire in the service department of the Humphrey Chevrolet automobile dealership at 635 Chicago Avenue on a Sunday afternoon in January 1974, and then a very large fire at the Marblecast Company warehouse at 1920 Ridge Avenue on a Saturday night in February.

Located at the northeast corner of Chicago & Keeney, Humphrey Chevrolet’s main garage door opened onto Keeney Street, and it was through this entrance that firefighters attacked the flames. Very much like the Moto-Port fire in 1956 and the Holiday Lincoln-Mercury fire in 1968, this blaze involved vehicles, gasoline, and other flammables located inside a commercial garage, producing thick black smoke that poured out of the garage and permeated the neighborhood.

Crews from Engine 22 and Squad 21 initially attacked the fire with hand-lines, before being forced to back-out when conditions in the interior worsened. Engine 24 took the hydrant at Hinman & Keeney and supplied water for Engine 22 and Squad 21. Engine 21 and Engine 23 responded on the second alarm and led-out multiple 2-1/2 inch hose-lines, with Engine 21 pumping from the hydrant at Chicago & South Boulevard, and Engine 23 pumping from the one located on the east-side of Chicago Avenue half a block north of Keeney. The service department was gutted and several vehicles were destroyed before the flames were extinguished. The estimated loss from this fire was $160,000.

About a month after the Humphrey Chevrolet fire, the EFD responded to a report of a fire at the Marblecast warehouse. Located in the former Bowman Dairy building, the blaze was initially attacked from the interior with hand-lines manned by the first-arriving engine companies, while Truck 21 ventilated the roof. F-2 ordered a second alarm, bringing Engine 25, Engine 22, and Truck 22 to the scene, with second alarm companies ordered to protect the Fields Cadillac automobile dealership exposure to the north.

Mutual aid was requested from Wilmette, and Engine 202 responded to EFD Station # 1 to provide coverage for the city, as Engine 24 — the last remaining EFD engine company available — was dispatched to the fire. Despite a valiant effort by the engine companies, the fire had gained too much headway to allow firefighters to knock it down, so crews were ordered out of the building and the fight went defensive.

With Truck 21 working on the east side and Truck 22 operating from the C&NW RR freight siding on the west side, the EFD’s two ladder trucks provided elevated master streams that were played through the roof after it collapsed, as well as 35-foot and 50-foot ground ladders used to access the roof of the Fields Cadillac automobile dealership. The general manager of the auto dealership as well as several employees responded from home and moved a number of Caddies out of the showroom and service department.

A full Code 10 was ordered by Chief Beattie, calling in firefighters from the two off-duty shifts, many of them responding from a party hosted by IAFF Local 742. The two reserve engines and the reserve truck were manned by off-duty crews arriving at Stations 3, 4, and 5, while other firefighters were shuttled to the scene in EFD station wagons and the International pick-up truck.

The auto dealership to the north was saved but the warehouse was gutted, with an estimated property loss loss of $543,000, the sixth-highest loss from a fire in Evanston’s history up until that point time. Only the fires at the American Hospital Supply Corporation ($1.9 million loss in October 1963), the Rolled Steel Corporation ($1.4 million loss in January 1970), Bramson’s clothing store ($1.2 million in October 1971), the Northwestern University Technological Institute ($620,000 loss in December 1940), and Hines Lumber Yard ($545,000 loss in March 1971) sustained a higher property loss.

During the 1960’s, IAFF Local 742 grew increasingly militant under the dynamic leadership of Michael Lass. Lass joined the EFD in 1963, and was promoted to Captain in 1970. However, his real talent was as a union operative. Capt. Lass resigned from the EFD in 1971, giving up a promising career as a fire officer to take a full-time job as IAFF Illinois field representative. Capt. William Currie, a 20-year veteran of the EFD, succeeded Lass as president of Local 742, but the union was no less militant under Capt. Currie than it had been under Capt. Lass.

At 6 AM on Thursday, February 28, 1974, just a few days after the Marblecast fire, 88 members of Local 742 led by Capt. Currie went on strike, the first significant job action by Evanston firemen since eleven of the twelve members of the part-time paid EFD resigned en masse in a dispute with Chief Sam Harrison in 1888. Requesting an immediate 10% pay raise and a reduction in their work-week, Evanston firefighters struck only after the City of Evanston refused to negotiate.

With 88 members of the Evanston Fire Department plus their families, friends, and citizens sympathetic to the cause walking picket lines in front of the five fire stations, EFD chiefs, police officers who had been cross-trained as auxiliary firefighters in 1958, and other assorted “volunteers” from various city departments were ordered to man the fire stations. Two police officers were assigned to each of the three police station wagon ambulances, as the Evanston PD responded to inhalator calls without EFD support. The Village of Skokie agreed to allow its fire department to provide mutual aid to Evanston, but only in the event of a working fire.

The City of Evanston requested and received an emergency court injunction to stop the strike, but only after another judge refused to grant one. Members of Local 742 returned to work at 11 AM on Saturday, March 2nd, the strike having lasted 53 hours. No significant fires occurred during the strike. Despite some in city government claiming the city had won, the Evanston City Council recognized Local 742 as the collective bargaining entity for Evanston firefighters, and directed City Manager Ed Martin and the city attorney to negotiate with the union. As a result, Evanston firefighters received a significant pay raise, and the average work-week was reduced from 56 to 54 hours.

In the year prior to the strike (1973), annual salaries for “topped out” members of the Evanston Fire Department ranged from $20,600 (Chief) to $17,880 (Assistant Chief) to $15,192 (Captain) to $13,848 (Fire Equipment Mechanic) to $13,008 (Fireman I). By 1977, annual salaries for “topped out” members of the EFD had increased to $29,000 (Chief), $23,952 (Assistant Chief), $19,788 (Captain), $18,660 (Fire Equipment Mechanic), and $17,256 (Fireman I), in each case an increase of anywhere from 30% – 40% over the four-year period. This increase is made even more significant when combined with a reduction in the average work-week from 56 to 54 hours during the same period of time.

Reducing the work-week was accomplished by the return of the “Kelly Day” (henceforth to be known as a “Short Day”), a concept that had been phased-out when the three-platoon system and 56-hour work-week were implemented in April 1957. Beginning in 1975, each Evanston firefighter working a shift would receive an extra day off every twelve weeks (a five-day mini-vacation after every 27 days worked). To provide the three additional men needed to cover short days (one extra man on each platoon), one of the two captain’s positions in the Fire Prevention Bureau was eliminated, and the EFD was increased from 100 to 102 members.

The “Collective Bargaining Bill” was signed into law by Illinois Governor James Thompson on December 10, 1985. In addition to providing collective bargaining rights for Illinois firefighters, the bill also made strikes by firefighters illegal. However, Evanston firefighters won collective bargaining rights in 1974 because they were willing to risk their careers by going out on strike after the city refused to negotiate, which in subsequent  contracts helped lead to more substantial pay raises, a further reduction in the work-week, and improvements in working conditions.