Posts Tagged Chicago Fire Department historian

Chicago Fire Department historian Ken Little (more)

Excerpts from the

Before computers and GPS, there was Kenneth F. Little.

Mr. Little, 84, who died Friday in Glenview, was a senior fire-alarm operator with the Chicago Fire Department. It was said that he knew every street, alley, and shortcut in the city, helping him get engines to fires faster.  

In a 36-year career, he saved lives, former Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce said. “He had a second sense for what fire companies were closest. He was amazing, just one of a kind.”

Little co-authored six books on Chicago Fire Department history and helped found the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, which has a library named in his honor.

After a 1957 fire raged through the Chicago City Council chambers, he received a commendation for staying at his post, as he and dispatchers worked above in the old Fire Alarm Office.

His ingenuity once helped save a famed Chicago German tap and restaurant, Schulien’s at 2100 W. Irving Park Rd., according to his son Philip Little, president of the fire museum. He’d heard a radio message about a Snorkel squad heading back to quarters after a fire. Minutes later, a call came in about flames at Schulien’s.

“He thinks for a second, if they’re going back to quarters, they have to be going down Western Avenue,” Philip Little said.

He contacted that squad instead of the fire companies that normally would have been called, and found it was at Irving and Western. Those firefighters got to the restaurant in just 30 seconds and quickly put out the fire.

Growing up in Old Town, young Ken Little used to hang around a firehouse at North and Hudson, listening to radio calls.   When he got a little older, he took buses, streetcars and the L to visit every city firehouse. He also rode the bus from one end of the city to the other on Western, the city’s longest street. He got out and walked to learn shortcuts and one-way streets. Eventually, he studied the layout of factories so he could warn firefighters about toxic chemicals in basements.

If the fire radio was quiet, he and other dispatchers would quiz each other on the names of every bar and grocery store on Western Avenue from Howard to 119th Street, a skill that made him a popular guest on overnight radio shows hosted by Eddie Schwartz.

When Ken joined the Chicago Fire Alarm Office in 1957, fire companies were dispatched from city hall and another office at 63rd and Wentworth. Some calls came in from thousands of the red, free-standing fire-alarm boxes scattered around the city dating to the days when people didn’t have phones.

He knew old-timers who were on duty the day of the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that killed more than 600, as well as the 1910 Chicago Stockyards fire that killed 22 firefighters, the single biggest such loss until the 9/11 attacks. He knew a fire-alarm operator who, in 1929, drove police officers to investigate a shooting on Clark Street that became known as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. And, he knew slide-down fire poles were invented in Chicago, according to Philip Little.  

During the Blizzard of ’67, he stayed in the office for 36 hours. “They couldn’t get out, and no one could get in,” his son said.

He taught history at Wright College. He enjoyed the jazz of Errol Garner. And he collected coins and Tootsietoys. A Tootsietoy firetruck will be tucked in his casket.

He and his wife Alice, who died in 1986, had 10 children, including triplets. In addition to his son Philip, he is survived by daughters Anna, Rita, and Mary Ellen, sons Kenneth, Robert, Stephen, Richard, and Raymond and four grandchildren. His son Thomas died before him.

A funeral Mass is planned for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the church he attended growing up, St. Michael’s, 1633 N. Cleveland Ave.

thanks Dan

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Chicago Fire Department historian Ken Little

Chicago FD historian and retired senior fire alarm operator Ken Little passed away this week. Ken was well known for his co-authoring of four volumes of the history of Chicago firehouses with Father John McNalis and conducting bus tours highlighting Chicago Fire Department historical events.

Kenneth F. Little retired Senior Fire Alarm Operator for the Chicago Fire Department. Beloved husband of the late Alice nee Bychowski . Loving father of Kenneth, Robert (Kimberlee), Stephen C.F.D (Rhonda), Philip (Lee), Richard, Raymond Mary Ellen (Steve) Cooper, Anna (Ron) Stargardt, Rita (Rich) Carlson, and the late Thomas. Proud grandfather of Timothy, Christine, Kevin , and Jenna. Dear brother of the late Robert. Fond uncle of many nieces and nephews. Visitation Monday, December 11 from 3 pm to 9 pm at Cumberland Chapels 8300 W Lawrence Ave, Norridge. Friends and Family are asked to meet Tuesday at 10:15 am at St Michael Church 1633 N Cleveland Ave Chicago for 10:30 am mass of Christian Burial. Interment will take place privately Wednesday at All Saints Cemetery. Ken was a longtime teacher of Chicago History at Wright Jr. College. In lieu of flowers donations to the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, 517 Senon Dr. Lemont, Illinois 60439 – 4093 would be appreciated Info (708) 456-8300 or www.

Excerpts from

The Chicago Fire Department’s historian — retired Senior Fire Alarm Operator Kenneth Little — has died at the age of 84.

Fire Department Chaplain Father John McNalis says phone conversations with Ken Little would often start with a question from Little:

“‘Do you have a minute?’

“And if you said yes, the next time you looked at the clock, it could be anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes later. And he just talked, and you’d go, ‘I can’t remember what we started with.’”

Father McNalis worked with Ken Little to produce four volumes of the history of Chicago firehouses. The job took 16 years.

“He never forgot anything.  He knew all of the details and could rattle off names and times and companies that responded, where he was when the call came in.”

McNalis says Little grew up in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. His funeral Mass will be at St. Michael’s.


Video of Ken at work at the old Main Fire Alarm Office at beginning of this video for the first 16 seconds

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