In late 1927, West University Place's Mayor Schlesinger, concerned about getting the fire insurance rate for the town reduced, met with the State Fire Commissioner in Austin.
Upon his return, he reported to the City Commissioners that in order to receive a substantial reduction in the rate, they must organize a volunteer fire department, purchase a fire truck, appoint a City Fire Marshal, and build a fireproof fire station.
Starting a Volunteer Fire Department
This was a tall order for the infant municipality, which had only incorporated 4 years earlier and did not have a lot of spare cash. However, the City Commissioners lost no time in taking action. At their meeting on February 13, 1928, they approved the purchase of the 1st piece of fire equipment for the City of West University Place: a 600-gallon capacity Seagrave Suburbanite Pumper for $8,750. The truck was delivered 2 weeks later and tested at the lake in Hermann Park under supervision of the Fire Chief and Assistant Fire Chief of Houston. City Council minutes state that "... all test made exceeded the guarantee made by the Seagrave Corporation."
Residents of West University Place gathered in May of 1928 to form a volunteer fire department. They chose J.A. Metcalf to be the 1st Fire Chief with H.P. Pope as his assistant. A total of 10 men made up the 1st volunteer group. Later that year, 2 men were hired to man the fire station day and night. The day fireman, Alvin Miles, was apparently a minor for he was "instructed to procure the permission of his parents and full consent from them in connection with such employment." In addition to his firefighting responsibilities, Miles was also required to assist the City Secretary in his various duties.
The City Hall, which included the Fire Station, was built by late 1928. In early 1929, Ordinance No. 27 created the office of Fire Marshal and named Metcalf to the position. The City had now complied with all of the state's requirements. As a result, the City fire insurance rates were cut nearly in half in the following year.
Grass fires were the major concern of the department during its 1st year of operation. In a report Metcalf made to the City Commission early in 1929, he stated that he and his men had responded to 23 grass fires and 1 house fire in 1928. He also added that "the department has responded to calls for grass fires promptly and about all the grass in the town has been burned off."
A Ladies Auxiliary of the West University Place Fire Department was formed in 1933. The organization, open to wives of the firemen, charged dues of 10 cents per month. The women sent flowers to the sick, gave gifts to the new babies within the department, and held socials where they sold baked goods to buy equipment for the Fire Department.
In 1944, when a history of the Fire Department was issued in the form of a small booklet, Metcalf was the Fire Chief. The other officers of the department were:
- Cecil Emmons, Assistant Chief
- Arthur Sweitzer, Battalion Chief
- W.E. Fitzgerald, Senior Captain
- Joe H. Dannenbaum, Junior Captain
- John L. Golden, Chairman
- James King, Secretary and Treasurer
At that time, there were 2 paid firemen, 30 volunteers, a corresponding secretary, and a young mascot named Jimmie Nees. In the years between 1928 and 1944, 2 men had lost their lives in the line of duty.
In 1946, the city hired a 3rd fireman, Garvin H. Lacy. The other 2 paid firemen were J.D. "Red" Allstott and G.E. King. Metcalf stepped down as Fire Chief in the mid 1940s. He served as the City Fire Marshal for several years following his resignation. Over the next 10 years, 4 different men filled the position of Fire Chief:
- W.F. Semmelrogge
- A.L. "Smokey" Sweitzer
- Claude V. Reynolds
- George Juniel
Advanced Radio Technology
A big step forward for the volunteer fire department occurred in 1947 when a 2-way radio system was installed. Funds for the system, which cost $1,757, were raised by a house-to-house canvass by members of the Fire Department and Civic Club of West University Place. The central transmitting and receiving unit with the call letters of KWPJ was installed at the Fire Station and receiving sets were installed in the homes of 26 volunteer firemen.
Previously, the firemen would hear the fire siren blow and have to either call the fire station to find out the location of the fire or try to follow the sound of the fire truck siren to the location of the blaze. The new system enabled the fire dispatcher at the station to simultaneously call all fire department members. The department had the added distinction of being the 1st volunteer fire department in the country to have the radio system.
Growth & Change in the Department
Being a volunteer fireman was definitely a labor of love. The majority were businessmen who held full-time jobs. The volunteers furnished their own transportation and gasoline, and were "subject to call" at all times of the day and night. Sometimes an entire night would be spent fighting and cleaning up after a fire. The volunteers would return home in the early hours of the morning with little or no sleep and go to work the following day. In addition to firefighting, they responded during hurricanes, they rescued children from locked bathrooms and cats from high places, and they performed first aid. When Hurricane Carla hit in September 1961, the Fire Department paid staff and volunteers worked day and night for 4 days.
By 1973, West University Place had grown considerably and the focus of fire protection had changed. In the volunteer fire department's early years, grass fires on empty lots had been their major concern. Now, with a dwelling covering nearly every lot in the city, protection of the resident's homes was primary. It seemed feasible at this time to disband the volunteer fire department and convert to a fully-paid fire department. This was accomplished in 1973.
Recent Fire Chiefs
Charles E. Duffin was appointed as Fire Chief in 1956. Upon his retirement in 1974, Ben Wilcher, became Fire Chief. Wilcher had been with the department since 1956. Wilcher retired in 1984 and Terry Stevenson was then appointed Fire Chief.
Terry Stevenson was a lifelong West University Place resident who began his career with the city in 1971 as a firefighter and eventually worked his way to the position of Fire Chief in 1984. As Fire Chief, his contributions to the City were endless including his work in the reduction of the ISO (Insurance Standard Office) rating. Chief Stevenson created the beginnings of what is now the City's comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. He also made huge strides in developing a technically advanced and well trained fire department.
Chief Stevenson retired on January 31, 2004. Upon Chief Stevenson's retirement, Steve Ralls (who began his career in 1974 with the West University Place Fire Department) was appointed Fire Chief, a job that he held 9 years until retirement in June 2013. Upon his retirement, Chief Ralls' Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Taylor was promoted to Fire Chief.
Equipment & Personnel
Fire equipment, personnel and volume of calls have changed considerably since the department's inception in 1928. In that year, their equipment consisted of a 1928 Seagraves Suburbanite Pumper. As of 2011, the West University Place Fire Department's equipment has grown to include a 2007 Pierce Pumper, 1995 Pierce Pumper, a 2018 Frazer Ambulance, a 2008 Frazer Ambulance and a 1997 M1078 LMTV.
There were 10 men made up the 1st volunteer group of firefighters. Today there are 23 full-time employees including the:
- Fire Chief/Emergency Management Coordinator
- Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal
- 3 Fire Captains
- 3 Fire Lieutenants
- 15 Firefighter/Paramedics
Response to Calls
In 1928, the volunteer firefighters responded to 23 grass fires and 1 house fire. In 2018, the fire truck received 723 calls for service and our ALS ambulance received 698 calls for service. One thing has not changed however: the dedication of the firefighters in protecting the lives and property of West University Place citizens.
Source: Stepping Back in Time, History of West University Place by June A. Begeman