Politically proud, the early settlers of Napoleon determined that their village be recognized as the county seat as early as 1835. Yet for the next 37 years, the council fathers provided no protection against the ravages of fire that constantly threatened to wipe out the rapidly growing settlement. If a house or a store caught on fire in those days, the owner had one recourse, to scream for help, hoping that a bucket toting, friendly neighbor would hear the cry and come running to help douse the flames. Prior to 1870, Napoleon had no fire fighting organization or apparatus of any kind – not even a bucket brigade!
In November of 1879, however, when an incendiary fire ate up an entire block of homes and business houses, including a school (located on East Clinton about where the telephone exchange building is today), the town council finally became concerned. Some wanted a hand engine and homemade ladders. Others held out for something more efficient, a steam pumper, hook and ladder truck. They finally contracted for a steam pumper and 300 feet of hose for $4,600.00. “Old Betsy Jane” was the name of the first steam engine. On April 17, 1880, the firemen’s group, with 22 members, was organized. It called itself the Hope Hose Co. A year later another group of 15 members formed the Independent Hose and Ladder Co.
The second home of the Napoleon Fire Department was a large, three-story, red-brick building located on East Washington Street where the Henry County Bank stands today. On top of the old building was a large fire bell, the first bell used by the department in 1870. The old fire bell has been preserved by thoughtful citizens and some day may be used as an historical city monument.
In early days, the third floor of the old fire house was used as a recreation hall, where the Firemen’s Auxiliary gave many dances. Charles Bales, Fire Captain for 38 years, lived with his family on the second floor until the department moved to its next location at 115 West Main. The lower floor was used for storing fire apparatus, including a team of horses, and several jail cells.
Today, in our fast-paced, mechanized world, it is interesting to recollect the “snap into action” procedure that Charlie Bales, fire wagon driver, had to operate in order to get his fire wagon and team of sorrel horses off to a fire in record time. The horses were tied in individual stalls, side by side. A large chain ran from the front of the fire wagon to each stall. In the center of the branching chain was a pull ring. When Bales pulled on the ring, the doors of the fire station flew back and the snaps on the stalls opened for the horses to move into action. The harness was hooked from the ceiling. After Bales hooked the horse collars together, the harness dropped and the horse, wagon and driver were ready for action. A long whip was set to lash out at the team to spur them on, but this whip seldom touched the Napoleon fire horses as they were so well trained at the sound of the alarm to spring out of the station and race down the rough, brick street.
On one occasion when Bales driving his team to a fire at the hoop mill, the horses in the habit of turning right at the bridge, refused to follow the driver’s orders to turn left towards the fire. The result was that the ladder wagon turned over in the canal and one horse was caught under the swinging canal bridge and was killed. While the crowd was gawking at the wreck, the engine and two wheeled carts were taken to the fire by drays. Mill hands, however, had the fire out when apparatus arrived. After the fire, Bales purchases a new fire team.
When the fire department was first organized, it could only boast of a fire wagon. The department was not rich enough to purchases horses for it. When there was a fire, someone would have to go out on the street and rent horses or mules for $2.00. In 1905 the fire company passed a motion stating that if any member missed three monthly meetings, he was automatically ousted. In those days, a volunteer fireman was paid $1.00 for going to a fire – whether it lasted a few minutes or many hours. If a fireman missed a night call, at that time, he had to pay the department .50 for being absent.
In October 1975, a portion of the floor on the West Main Street Fire Station fell through to the basement. City Council became alarmed and they requested that the firemen remove all equipment across the street to a city parking lot. For about six weeks, it remained there until the equipment could be removed to the new fire station at 265 West Riverview.
The townspeople, especially the firemen, felt that the new building was a palace compared to the West Main Street location, which originally was constructed for use as a furniture store.
This new firehouse, which was made possible through federal grant, has a 65’ x 110’ apparatus room (8 bays), a room for mask tanks and a compressor, a room for oxygen, a storage room, a hose washing and drying room, the Chief’s office, a dispatch office, a Captain’s office, and a day room, with kitchen facility, all on the first level.
On the second floor, there is a bunk room with showers for the on-duty firemen, plus a large meeting room with a kitchen facility. This area, furnished by the volunteer firemen, is claimed by them.
In December, 1975, a new 1500 G.P.M. Ward-LaFrance pumper was added to the present equipment. In April, 1977, a Sutphen 85 ft. aerial tower, with 1500 G.P.M. pump, was added. This unit was purchased by Henry County. The city signed an agreement to house, man, and maintain the aerial unit for 20 years. In August, 1976, a Dodge Rescue Unit with a Braun body was purchased to replace the 1957 Dodge car used previously. The latter is now equipped for use at fires with air tanks. Also, this ’75 Dodge could be used as a back-up rescue unit.
The fire department, in November, 1976, received a 1952 Jeep from the Civil Defense, and the firemen, volunteering their time, converted this Jeep into a grass fire unit. A water tank and a new pump were installed and painted. This handsome unit, the firemen claim, has been a great asset to the department.
In April, 1983, the City of Napoleon decided that the 1957 standby rescue unit should be updated. They purchased a refurbished 1977 Ford Chassis with a Braun unit. Since the department has been getting about 350 rescue runs a year, this rescue unit was a welcome addition.
The fire department at Napoleon is manned by four full-time firemen and 20 volunteers. The department’s jurisdiction includes the City of Napoleon and, through contracts, three townships: Napoleon, Harrison and Freedom. Presently there are mutual aid contracts with Bryan, Defiance, Florida, Holgate and Wauseon, plus a county-wide aerial contract.
When Captain John Fruchey, a veteran of 32 years, retired in March 1983, he was replaced by Captain Marvin “Mike” Weller, a veteran of 17 years.
In addition to Captain Weller, the other full-time firemen were Tom Bergstedt, Dennis Edgar and Sherman Smith. When on duty, they work a 24-hour shift, with 48 hours rest, an average of 56 hours a week.
The volunteers come from many backgrounds, and are employed in a wide variety of occupations. Their occupations include mechanics, factory workers, delivery men, and carpenters. Volunteers are paid per hour. Certainly it is not the money that beckons these dedicated people. They welcome the opportunity to serve and help their community. They enjoy a certain comradeship of working towards a common goal. There is an element of pride and joy in their work as they serve their community.
In 1979, the State of Ohio passed a law requiring all emergency units to respond with three people, two whom must be certified Emergency Medical Technicians Ambulatory (EMT-A). To qualify as an EMT-A, it is necessary to successfully complete and pass this course. The EMT-A service is run on three shift basis per day. Each call is answered by three people, the driver on duty and two others scheduled for the shift. Persons on call are alerted through use of “pagers”, with tones being sent out by the driver on duty.
The Napoleon Fire Department has the reputation of being efficient, alert and always willing to offer quick assistance. From the time an alarm is sounded, the firemen are out of the door within 30 seconds. The community walks with confidence by day and the people rest easier at night because Napoleon is fortunate to have such a great group of experienced fire fighters and EMTs.
In 1989 the city purchased a 1979 Mack truck, which was made into a 3000 gallon tank truck. A new squad was purchased to replace the old squad, which was a 1976 Dodge/Braun. The city in 1991 hired its first full-time chief to replace retiring Captain Marvin (Mike) Weller, Chief Scott Highley, who came from Cleveland, Ohio. To help him were Bob Burditt, Tom Druhot and Mike Mohring. In 1991 the city gave the Firefighter test to help the full-time staff grow. Tony Druhot made the test, as did Tom Bergstedt, Dennis Edgar and Lenny Talmage.
On January 27, 1992 at 12:05 a.m. the department was called out to one of the biggest fires, to the New Wellington Hotel. Over 120 firefighters responded and eight ambulances. The departments involved were Napoleon, Ridgeville Corners, Florida, Liberty Center, Malinta, McClure, Holgate, Archbold, Defiance and Wauseon. It was the first recorded deaths in years. Two men and a little boy lost their lives. With the best efforts of the department a job well done was put forth. The city honored 11 firemen with a letter of commendation and 7 firemen received Distinguished Service for their heroic acts during the fire. It was also recognized what an outstanding job the Napoleon Fire and Rescue Squad did. As a result of the fire we came up with a project to have a Fire Safety House for kids’ fire safety. Donations and pancake breakfasts were made to get the house. The trailer came from Walters RV of Napoleon.
In 1993 Chief Highley moved on to Sharon Township Fire Department in Columbus, Ohio. On May 9, 1994 the City of Napoleon hired Chief Allen Woo from Twinsburg, Ohio. In 1994 the City purchased a Heavy Duty Rescue truck, which replaced a 1957 Dodge light truck and a 1956 American-LaFrance pumper. In 1995 the department started offering paramedic-advanced services.
In 1999 Lynn Hancock was Appointed Chief until 2004 when he accepted a position in southern Ohio.
In 2005 Robert Bennett was appointed chief.
For the past 137 years, the City of Napoleon has been served by dedicated men and women from varied walks of life who have comprised the Napoleon Fire Department. Their dedication and pride in work of the department is evidenced by the condition of the facilities and equipment. A special camaraderie exists among the members of the department. These people, who have given unselfishly of their time and talent, are to be commended for their loyalty to, and concern for, the citizens of Napoleon.
The primary responsibility of any fire department is prevention . We at Napoleon fire department approach fire prevention in three ways . 1) Education. We attempt to educate the public in several ways, programs in the schools, bring the kids to the fire station and public education talks throughout the community . 2) Engineering. We try to get with architects contractors and builders in an attempt to ensure that both new and existing buildings are built and maintained in accordance with all applicable codes . 3) Enforcement. Inspections of existing and new commercial occupancies within the city .