The population of Columbia had grown from about 200 in 1821 to about 2,500 in 1875. The first fire department in the city was actually a group of forty-eight citizens, who organized in the spring of 1875 to form the Columbia Fire Company. The Columbia Fire Company was a voluntary group, choosing their own leaders and operating under a constitution. Their equipment was purchased by the city and consisted of a hand pumper (which was pushed to the fire scene), 250 feet of leather 2-inch hose, 4 dozen buckets, one 10-foot and one 35-foot ladder. The total cost of this equipment was $469.30, having been delivered by train to the Wabash Station on North Tenth Street.
The Academic Hall Fire in 1892 was a spectacular blaze, which threatened to end Columbia’s prominence as a center for education. Early in the evening on Saturday, January 9th a meeting was about to begin in what was then the east wing of Academic Hall, the State College’s main building. Faculty and students discovered a fire caused by defective wiring in the ceiling of the chapel. The blaze resulted in a total loss of Academic Hall. The fire was a crucial point in the history for both Columbia and its fire department. With the inability to control the fire, legislators across the state saw the opportunity to move all or part of the University to other cities in Missouri. In order to keep the University, the City needed to show all interested parties this area was committed to the safety of the public and would invest in reorganizing their firefighting efforts.
Columbia Fire Department Is Established
Columbia’s first professional fire company was organized in April of 1901. The city had finally assumed the responsibility of providing fire protection for the citizens. The city’s first fire chief, George Klingbeil, had helped design a horse-drawn fire wagon purchased by the city. It was built by a local firm, Jarvis and Vaughn Carriage Works, at a cost of $250. The Fire Wagon contained fifteen hundred feet of hose, ladders of twenty five and thirty-five foot lengths, three four-gallon chemical extinguishers and other tools necessary for firefighting. A team of two horses, named “Prince” and “Dan”, were purchased for $300.
The horses and wagon were housed for several years in sheds on North Eighth Street near Park Avenue, and later on the northwest corner of Ash and North Eighth Streets. Around 1908, this fire equipment was moved to a new location on the northwest corner of Seventh and Walnut Street in a building also serving as City Hall.
This first fire department was a small, paid force. Volunteers, often university students, continued to supplement the department at the scenes of the fires. Under Chief Klingbeil’s direction, the department was uninformed and performed drills every Friday. Within 20 months of its organization, the department had 34 alarms of fire, involving property valued at $183,000 with a total fire loss of $22,100.
In 1904, the private water utility located on Hinkson Creek was purchased by the city. The voters approved the purchase and construction of a publicly owned waterworks and light plant at More’s Lake (on what is now Business Loop 70 East). However, scarcity of hydrants in the city or hydrants that were stuck or clogged continued to hinder firefighting efforts.
Kissel Car Motorized equipment came to Columbia in 1913 following a series of major fires. A “Kissel” truck complete with 1,000 feet of hose, several ladders, and a 40-gallon chemical extinguisher was purchased by the city. It was housed in a city-rented two-story brick building located on the northwest corner of Seventh and Walnut (the building located directly across Walnut former Fire Station #1). Beds were included for three firefighters, who were given four hours a week to spend with their families and take care of personal business.
In the spring of 1913, Earl Kurtz was appointed Chief, with a salary of $75 per month. Assistant Chief F.W. Ketchum and Fire Fighters Edward Harrel, Thomas Walden and W.N. Griffiths comprised the remainder of the paid department. Additional personnel came from area volunteers.
While serving as Fire Chief from 1913 to 1918, Kurtz initiated Columbia’s first fire prevention program by inspecting buildings, discovering potential fire problems and educating the public in fire prevention methods.
In order to dispatch men and equipment during the early 1900s, the city was divided into five districts. When an alarm was received, a whistle located on top of the Stephens Publishing Company Building at Hitt and Broadway was sounded with a corresponding number of blasts, notifying volunteers of the location or district of the fire.
Tom Walden was appointed Fire Chief in 1918 and remained in that position until 1950. When appointed, his salary was raised from $100 to $125 per month and three other full-time firefighters, W.C. Kennedy, W.E. Christian and J.C. Walden, received salary increases of $10-$15. This raised their monthly salaries to about $40.
On February 7, 1921, the Haden Building at 9th and Broadway was destroyed by fire. During operations, it became necessary to call the city’s Water and Light Department to increase water pressure in the mains because the fire department didn’t have a pumper to do this job at a hydrant. Realizing the need for a pumper, in early 1922 the department took delivery of an “REO” pumper equipped with a ladder, hose and fire extinguisher.
In 1924, a new “Pierce-Arrow” pumper arrived. It was equipped with hose, ladders and chemical tanks. With the Pierce-Arrow in service as the front line pumper, the Kissel truck was converted to a “utility” truck, which carried extension ladders, picks, shovels and other firefighting gear. The REO was sent back to the factory for renovation. Also, a “Flint Roadster” was bought for the Fire Chief. Three new firefighters were hired bringing the total to seven in 1924. In 1928, a “Buda” pumper was purchased to go along with the Kissel, Reo, and Pierce-Arrow. A new Buick was also purchased to replace the Chief’s Flint Roadster.
A Thriving City
The 30s and 40s found both the population and geographical area of Columbia increasing. Increased building heights and the age of downtown buildings made it necessary for the further expansion of the fire department. March 1933 found the fire department operating out of a new fire and police building located on the southwest corner of Seventh and Walnut. Two years later, the department had increased to 11 firefighters. In 1940, the city council authorized the purchase of a “Hercules” pumper. In 1945, the council authorized construction of a 1,000,000 gallon elevated storage tank near Garth and Walnut, because the water supply was still a problem.
A “Mack” pumper was purchased in 1948 along with two Ford fire trucks, each with 500 gpm capacity, given to the university by the U.S. Army. The Fords were housed in a substation, just south of the UMC Hospital and Clinics building from 1946-1959. This substation was manned by two firemen on a 24-on/24-0ff schedule. Assignment to the substation was rotated every two weeks between the men assigned downtown. When a fire call was telephoned into the downtown station, the personnel at the substation could listen on their own extension and respond when necessary.
Radio communication for the fire department appeared in 1950, when a radio was installed in the Hercules pumper housed in the downtown station.
The fire department’s first aerial ladder was placed in service in 1953, when the city purchased an 85-foot “Seagrave” ladder truck. This truck was in service as a reserve ladder truck until replaced in 1990. In 1957, Fire Station #2 was erected at the corner of West Worley Street and Pershing Road.
From 1951 to October 1973, Max Woods served as fire chief. During his tenure, the fire department expanded greatly, adding four city-owned fire stations and one university-owned fire station. The university-owned station, Fire Station #3, was opened in 1966. Fire Station #4 opened in December 1970, Fire Station #5 opened a year later in December 1971 and Fire Station #6 opened three years later in April 1973.
Chief Woods retired in October 1973. He was replaced by Earl Dean Holland the same month. Chief Holland came from Texas. He was the first fire chief not from the Columbia area. When Chief Holland resigned to become fire chief in Tuscon, Arizona in October 1976, Battalion Chief J.Girard “Toot” Wren was appointed acting fire chief. Chief Wren’s appointment became permanent in February 1977. He served as fire chief until stepping down in December 1983.
A.W. “Bill” Westhoff Jr., was appointed Fire Chief in December 1983. Chief Westhoff was well known in the Columbia area because of his job with the University of Missouri as a fire service instructor and as the chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District.
Upon Chief Westhoff’s resignation in May 1987, J.Gerard Wren was again appointed acting fire chief and served in that position until the appointment of William Markgraf as fire chief, effective July 5, 1988.
Chief Markgraf came to Columbia from his position as fire chief of University City, MO. Having been the director of fire science at Columbia College from April 1976 to August 1977, Chief Markgraf was acquainted with Columbia and known by many fire personnel. Chief Markgraf’s primary goal was “to provide the best service possible for the citizens of Columbia.”
In June of 1997, Fire Station #1 was moved to a new building at 201 Orr St. The old station had been in operation since 1933. The larger, more modern fire apparatus no longer would fit comfortably in the apparatus room doors, traffic congestion was a problem and need for more municipal office space in the downtown area spurred on the move.
In December of 2001, Fire Station #8 was opened near the intersection of Nifong and Bearfield Road. This was the first new or additional fire station built in Columbia since Fire Station 7 opened in 1983.
In February of 2009, Fire Station #7, relocated from near the intersection of Providence Road and Nifong, opened at the corner of Green Meadows and Bethel, about 1/2 mile northwest of its former location.In February of 2010 Station #9 at 201 Blueridge opened.
In March of 2011, Chief William Markgraf retired after 22+ years leading the Columbia Fire Department. Deputy Chief Charles P. Witt Jr. was promoted to the position of fire chief. In April of that same year, Captain Randall “Randy” White was promoted to the position of deputy fire chief.
In January of 2015 Chief Charles P. Witt Jr. retired and Deputy Fire Chief Randall White was appointed to Chief effective February 1, 2015.
In October of 2019 Chief Randy White retired and Deputy Chief Kyle Fansler was appointed Acting Fire Chief.
Columbia Fire Department Today
The Columbia Fire Department today employs 140 highly skilled, trained and dedicated men and women. Three shifts, operating 9 fire stations, provide Columbia with 24-hour fire and emergency service protection year-round.
Organizationally, the Columbia Fire Department is divided into four divisions, each necessary to the operations of the others:
Fire Training Division
Fire Marshals Division
The Fire Administration, Fire Marshals Division are located at 201 Orr St. The Emergency Services Division, headed by three shift division chiefs, has its office in Fire Station #1 which is attached to the fire administration wing. The Training Academy and Training Division offices are located at 700 Big Bear Blvd in north central Columbia.
The modern fire department is heavily dependent on personal computers, and the Columbia Fire Department is no exception. Today almost every aspect of the job involves computers, from setting the daily personnel work roster to filling out incident reports. Each emergency we respond to is dispatched using a highly sophisticated computer-aided dispatch system. When a citizen calls 911 they are instantly interred into a computer aided dispatch system, which helps identify the location of the incident, any special information about that location and other important facts which may be needed to effectively meet the objective, protecting the lives and property of the citizens of the City of Columbia. The computer can inform responding units of the closest fire hydrants, cross streets and special hazards such as chemicals or gasoline stored on site.