From Phil Stenholm:

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department


During the decade of the 1920’s, as the Evanston Fire Department was expanding to an 84-man force, sixty new firemen were hired. During the decade of the 1930’s, however, only nine new men were hired, and only four during the height of the Depression 1932 – 1939.

The four men who were hired between 1932 and 1939 were hired off the same civil service list. They were one of dozens of unemployed men who took a long-awaited civil service test for the position of fireman that was given by the Evanston Civil Service Board in September 1935. Only 18 passed the test, and only four of the them were hired during the life of the list, all four in 1936. Each of them would go on to have stellar careers with the EFD: James Mersch Sr would retire as an assistant chief (and platoon commander) in 1958, George Jasper retired as a captain (Engine Co. 23) in 1963, Ervin Lindeman retired as a captain (Truck Co. 22) in 1967, and Lester Breitzman retired in 1971 after 35 years of service, the last seven as chief. 

The United States of America entered World War II following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by  naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. George Jasper was the first Evanston firefighter to be drafted into the U. S. military in June 1942. The Evanston Auxiliary Fire Service (EAFS) was organized that same month, mainly in preparation for a possible enemy attack by air raid or sabotage on Chicago, but also to help offset an anticipated manpower shortage in the Evanston Fire Department during the war. 

The EAFS operated with the EFD’s reserve city service ladder truck (Truck No. 3), a 300-GPM booster-pumper (Engine No. 7) that had been transferred to the street department for use as a utility truck in 1938 before being returned to the Evanston Fire Department in March 1942 and restored by EFD mechanics as a fully-functioning firefighting apparatus, and three government surplus U. S. Civilian Defense 250-GPM pumps mounted on trailers received by the EAFS in November 1942 that could be pulled when needed by street department trucks.

Lloyd Winne was appointed Chief of the EAFS, with Jared Johnson and M. E. Carter serving as the two company commanders. The EAFS was divided in two, with half of the men organized as Truck Co. 3 at Station # 3, and the other half organized as Engine Co. 7 at Station # 4. To make room for the EAFS engine company at Station # 4, the EFD’s lone-remaining spare rig — Engine No. 6, the 1917 Seagrave 300-GPM booster pumper that had been rebuilt as a 500-GPM “Suburbanite” TCP at the Seagrave factory in 1930 — was relocated to Fire Station # 2.   

The EAFS was disbanded in 1944 after its 300-GPM booster pumper (Engine No. 7) broke down and could not be repaired. The apparatus was subsequently dismantled for spare parts that were used to keep the other 1917 rigs running, most especially the venerable 1917 Seagrave 750-GPM TCP that had been in continuous front-line service for more than 25 years, first as Engine No. 1 from 1918-37, and then as Engine No. 4 since January 1938, but was showing signs of extensive rust damage on the chassis, axles, drive-train, and engine block.   

The Evanston Fire Department had difficulty maintaining minimum staffing for shifts during World War II, especially in 1944 and 1945. By November 1943, all civil service lists had been exhausted, and there were no qualified men available to be hired as firefighters. Many of the men who had been on civil service lists in 1942 and 1943 were drafted before they could be hired, and others who were hired were drafted almost immediately afterward.

The firefighters who did not enter the military — many of whom were veteran firemen nearing retirement — were often compelled to work their day off and receive just a straight-time comp day they could bank and use later. During the war it was not unusual for an Evanston firefighter to work 72 consecutive hours and then receive just a straight-time comp day, except he couldn’t actually use it because of manpower shortages.

This caused a morale problem throughout the EFD, and many older firefighters chose to retire rather than accept the burden of forced overtime. In fact, as many Evanston firemen retired during the years 1943-45 as during the previous ten years combined! And as more men retired, an even greater burden fell upon the men who remained. 

A year prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the most costly fire in Evanston’s history (to date) occurred when Northwestern University’s Technological Institute — which was under construction — was destroyed ($620,000 loss) on the morning of December 2, 1940. 64 Evanston firefighters, assisted by Chicago F. D. Engine Co. 70, Engine Co. 110, and Engine Co. 112, battled the blaze well into the afternoon as a cold north wind fanned the flames, threatening other N. U. properties to the south. Evanston and Chicago firefighters poured more than a million gallons of water onto the conflagration before eventually bringing the blaze under control, thanks in no small part to an abrupt change in wind-direction from northwest to south. Eight months later (August 1941), another fire caused heavy-damage ($35,000 loss) to the Pontiac Sales automobile dealership at 1819 Ridge Ave.

On February 23, 1941, the EFD responded into Wilmette and assisted the Wilmette F. D. battling a large and dangerous fire at the Vitreous Enamel Company factory at 1419 Central Ave. Just five days earlier, veteran EFD Lt. Dan McKimmons (Truck Co. 2) had narrowly escaped death after becoming trapped in a smoke-charged basement while battling a blaze in an apartment building at 1015 Dempster Street. Suffocating from smoke inhalation, Lt. McKimmons was rescued just in the nick of time and resuscitated by Assistant Chief Tom McEnery, Lt. William Elliott, and firemen Ed Hanrahan, John Reddick, Lou Morgan, George Thompson, Herb Claussen, and Fred Godeman.

Several other veteran Evanston firemen were not quite so fortunate, however. Fireman Fred Korn retired with a disability pension in 1939 after suffering a career-ending arm injury, Albert Balmes (Engine Co. 5) died as the result of a head injury suffered during a fight at his niece’s weddng reception in July 1940, Walt Caple retired on a disability pension in 1941, Lt. Carl Dorband (Engine Co. 3) died of a heart attack while sitting in front of Fire Station # 3 on a lazy Sunday afternoon in May 1942, and Capt. Anthony Steigelman (Engine Co. 1) and Lt. William Elliott (Truck Co. 1) each died while off duty, Steigelman in June 1944, and Elliott in January 1945. 

The first (and only) fatality to result from a traffic collision involving an Evanston Fire Department vehicle occurred during World War II, on the afternoon of Sunday, October 10, 1943. Truck Co. 2 was headed eastbound on Central Street, en route to Dyche Stadium for a drill with the EAFS, and as rookie Fireman Hjalmar Okerwall turned the lumbering 1937 Seagrave 65-foot aerial ladder truck northbound onto Ashland Avenue, an automobile occupied by an elderly couple heading westbound on Central Street failed to stop and collided with the fire truck. The car’s female passenger was killed.

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