While the official start to the Kent Volunteer Fire Department was 1911, the origins of the Department date back to 1881 when the Kent Water Company was incorporated. In September of that year, the company purchased 500 feet of two and a half inch hose.
The Kent Fire Association was chartered by the Connecticut General Assembly on April 17, 1885, and was granted the power to form a fire company. No regular meetings were held for nearly 30 years! The Association did purchase a two-wheeled hose cart from Eric Hagman, a local blacksmith, for $70 (materials and labor) and Watson and Morehouse furnished the ladders for $12. This cart was refurbished and can still be seen being pulled by KVFD in many area parades. The purpose of the association was, among other things, the “mutual protection and safety of the district against fire.”
The first meeting of the Kent Hose Company was held August 3, 1911 and is believed to have been held in the upper story of what is now the House of Books building on Main Street. There were 18 charter members, and the Company arranged to use the Association’s hose and cart for both fires and drills.
The first report of a fire is from the December 1911 minutes and was at Kent School. The alarm was sounded by ringing the bell at either St. Andrew’s or the Congregational Church so that members would hear it at their homes and farms, and come to town to see where help was needed. A fire gong made from New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad track was presented to the department in 1917 as a gift from Kent School alumnus J. Burleigh Morton, and this replaced the ringing of church bells to call members to a fire. The gong is being reinstalled in front of the new firehouse on Maple Street.
Although there were many dances in the early years, the first annual Firemen’s Ball was held in 1914. Also in 1914 the company also joined the Connecticut State Fireman’s Association.
In 1915 the Hose Company changed its name to the Kent Fire Department, its stated object being “the preservation and protection of life and property from fire within the limits of the Fire Association.” In 1916 the year-old Library Association purchased land upon which it could build a library or other public buildings, and voted to permit the Fire Association to convert a horse barn on the property into a firehouse.
By 1920 the Department reached 30 members and decided to limit its membership to that number. Slowly, by means of dances and other fundraisers, the Department was able to raise money to purchase apparatus: a chemical cart and 50 feet of rubber hose at a cost of $800 in 1923, which was later mounted on a used Pope Hartford fire truck from Danbury donated by the current Chief F. P. Johnson. In July of 1927 a siren costing $200 was installed in the firehouse and in 1929 an electric fire alarm was wired to ring from the telephone company office, which saved critical time between a call for help and an alarm to bring firefighters to the scene being sounded.
The Fire Department held its first Firemen’s Carnival and Fair in 1929, which netted over $6,000. The Department bought its first new truck, the 1929 Seagrave Pumper, and 1,000 feet of hose with the proceeds. This vehicle is still used in local parades and is on display at the Maple Street firehouse.
In the 1930s, the Department purchased a second pumper truck, a Diamond T, sponsored the Boy Scouts and joined the newly organized Litchfield County Fire Chiefs Emergency Plan, which coordinated what we call “mutual aid” today.
In the 1940s, the Department participated in war-related activities, such as scrap metal drives and letter writing campaigns to the servicemen from Kent sending them news of town. The Department also began talking about building a new firehouse to house its apparatus. Five years of fundraising and many donations resulted in the construction, much of it done by members, of the Main Street firehouse which was dedicated on May 17, 1952. The record shows that between 1927 and 1952 the Department was called out to a total of 230 fires.
During the 1950s, the Department started added equipment and apparatus to better serve the town of Kent which was growing appreciably. A yearbook commemorating 50 years of service and history was published in 1952 when the Main Street firehouse was dedicated.
During 1955, the Department worked to combat the flood. The Department purchased a new Seagrave pumper the same year, which was kept in service for over 30 years. One of the most devastating fires in the town’s history happened April 18, 1956 when Kent Center School burned.
The 1960s was a busy time for the Department. There were a number of large barn and house fires, and forest fires became a concern. The department purchased vehicles specifically for brush fires and forest fires. In 1963 a fund drive was launched to purchase a new truck: a Seagrave with “conventional cab with 1,000 gallon tank truck,” which was delivered in 1966 at a cost of $25,259. In December 1967 the Department voted to buy a forest fire truck: a Dodge four-wheel drive pickup “with a winch, brake lock, governor and without power brakes.” Identified as Truck 4-0, it cost $3,265.
Fundraising continued to be a focus of the Department, and the Firemen’s Ball was held annually in the Community House until 1967 after which it was moved to KCS, The Firemen’s Fair, which initially included a rodeo, was held on an annual basis from 1964 to 1979 on the Conboy’s Flats property off Route 7. Gross revenue from the first fair was $10,000 with a net profit of $5,900. The fair included a variety of events: bingo, a horse show, a homemaker’s tent, bathing beauties and chance booths.
The 50th Anniversary of the Department was recognized in August 1961 when long-time members were invited to the monthly meeting. “Memories of the Department in its infancy were told by the old timers and a charter member F. P. Miller spoke on the history of the Department and introduced H. B. Bull, Charter Member, who spoke on his recollections of the early days of the Department,” according to the minutes. “Veteran Members, W. R. Tobin, Sr., Andrew Partecelli, Donald Hall, and Kent Smith also spoke about their recollections. Ex-chief Albert Edwards read a letter from Charter Member Howard Edwards. Frank Miller read a letter from Charter Member James Barker and letters from Alan McDowell and Henry Bartlett. Ex-chiefs Albert Edwards, Cliff Gustafson Sr., Walter Gawel, and the present chief (Art Seabury) spoke on their respective terms of office.”
Equipment for fighting fires took on new importance during this decade with the first Scott “air-pac” purchased in 1960, according to the minutes. Much new hose was purchased and by the end of the decade two more Scott air-paks were purchased, as well as a smoke ejector.
During the 1960s, the Department also began training in rescue and medical services. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation training was introduced in 1961 and members became trained in first aid in 1966, taking a six-class course during the winter months. Afterwards an annual first aid class was held. Members were divided into two squads and monthly drills were offered by each squad. Since Warren Fire Company was providing medical transport services to Kent residents, KVFD began a campaign in October 1966 to help Warren raise money for a new ambulance. Members set out containers around the town, sent out appeal letters to Kent residents and voted to give $500 from the fair fund. A total of $1,701 in donations were received and given to Warren.
Twenty members decided to get the emergency medical training and formed a rescue squad in 1973.
In January 1974, the Chamber of Commerce surveyed Kent residents about the need for an ambulance service; 236 of 258 respondents agreed there was such a need, while 208 out of 257 respondents said that the Fire Department should operate the service. The Department accepted the challenge and, after much debate on how to structure the ambulance staff, amended the By-Laws to include an ambulance service operated by 24 of its members in March 1975.
Anticipating its expanding roles, in 1973 the Department purchased property from the Town for a new firehouse on Route 341 and Swift Lane for $1. Initially, the Department renovated the old town shed behind the Route 7 Town Hall for use as an Ambulance Garage, but after moving a barn from the Route 341 property across Swift Lane, it housed its first ambulance, a 1975 Ford van.
In 1973, the Department purchased its Truck 5-0, a Ford with a “John Bean high-pressure tanker for $37,767,” according to the minutes. In the 1970s, two used Army surplus vehicles were acquired from a state warehouse. The 1968 Jeep, which was outfitted with brush fire equipment and rebuilt by members became Truck 3-0, and is still part of the fleet today. A six-wheel generator truck was also obtained and its capacity was so large that it could generate the electrical needs of the entire Firemen’s Fair. Former Chief John Howland remembers that it had a winch with a cable on the front that proved very useful.
During the 1970s fundraising continued with the Fair and Ball, along with an annual raffle. In 1977 the Department agreed to start a new “ice out” guessing contest. It became the Ice Watch in the winter of 1978 and has continued since. Guesses are collected as to when the ice on the Housatonic River will melt and break. The winner splits the pot with KVFD.
The 1970s also brought women to the Fire Department membership for the first time. The first mention of women applying is in the 1973 Secretary’s Report and showed there was resistance to allowing them in, “Also hit with women’s lib! Three women applied for membership – no results!” In May 1976, Jeanne C. Howard was the first woman elected to membership. Ginny McNamara Copeland was rejected that same month, as were Leslie and Carol Connery later in the year. However, the Connerys reapplied and joined in February 1977, as did Ginny, who joined in 1984.
In the 1980s the Department’s membership grew substantially. In 1985 alone 17 new members joined. A “limited member” designation was available to those who did not want to serve as firefighters. In 1981 creating the administrative job of President was discussed. Due to an increasing number of “false alarms,” the Department encouraged the town to adopt an alarm ordinance, which was approved in 1985. The national 911 emergency system began in 1986, and the Department retained New Milford Answering Service to answer these calls.
Equipment and turnout gear continued to evolve. Since 1955 Kent had been unique in area fire departments for having large diameter hose. In 1981 the Department purchased a Gruman pumper with 5-inch diameter hose on two reels, the only vehicle of its kind among area towns. A total of 20 sets of turnout gear with nomex helmets, boots and coats were purchased in 1985 and put on the fire trucks. A new Chevrolet truck, donated to the Department in 1987 by Bruce Johnson’s family foundation, and valued at $50,000, became Truck 7-0, a rescue vehicle. A new ambulance was purchased in 1982. In the late 1980s, Jim Aiken decided to sell some land and give the proceeds to the Department, specifically to set up a dedicated fund for the replacement of ambulances. This endowment, the Aiken Fund, continues to this day and has funded more than two ambulances.
Renewed concern about the limited size of the Main Street firehouse sparked discussion about building expansion, and a committee was formed during the 1980s to investigate options. A substation or firehouse located in Kent Hollow that would reduce the distance and response time from the center of town was considered, but the minutes from 1983 reflect that “enthusiasm for the project had dwindled by the end of the year.” However, in 1985 Garwood Devaux offered to donate land across from Kent Hollow schoolhouse for a firehouse. The following year the Department approached the Town selectmen about accepting the donation of the Devaux property, and it was reported that the land was to be donated to KVFD and that “$26,000 in funds (were) to come to Kent and the Board of Selectmen want to turn it over to the Fire Department,” according to the minutes. However, because of a lack of KVFD members in the Hollow and concerns about maintaining the building and the truck that would be housed there, the project never came to fruition.
The type of calls responded to in the 1980s changed with many more automobile accidents. In 1982 there were 47 fire calls and 161 ambulance calls. By the end of the decade, the calls had risen to 121 fire calls and 188 ambulance calls.
A new fundraiser, the Kent Lucky Derby, began in 1985, and it ran the same weekend as the famous Kentucky Derby. Mint juleps were served. Resident Charlie Tremont always gave a hand in the event.
After a 10-year break, the Department decided to bring back the Firemen’s Fair in 1989. It was located in the far playing fields behind Kent Center School. Eventually, the fair moved across Route 7 to the fields which are now owned by the Kent Land Trust.
The 1990s brought a lot of modernization to the Department. New radio equipment was purchased and trucks were added to the fleet. For the first time in over two decades, two new pumpers were purchased, Truck 1-0, a Mack, in 1991 and Truck 5-0, an International, in 1995. The town took out bonds for the purchases, and the Department paid the town back over a 20 and 15-year period. A new ambulance was purchased in 1989 and another ambulance was purchased in 1997. In 1998, a Chevrolet pickup was purchased as a brush truck to replace the old Dodge, becoming the new Truck 4-0.
A safety equipment fund drive was launched in 1991 and brought in $18,000 to purchase new MSA air paks. Defibrillators become standard equipment for the ambulance and by the end of the decade smaller portable units were distributed to various responders in different geographic locations in the town.
Training requirements dramatically increased with new state certification for firefighters, as well as requirements for knowledge about airborne and bloodborne pathogens, in the face of the spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Training in recognizing and protecting against hazardous materials threats was also required, and by 2003 the Department agreed that every emergency member must be certified to the HazMat operational level. Training for new Emergency Medical Technicians in the 1990s was a 160-hour course, with required bi-annual re-certifications.
During the decade, members were active in area musters, which helped keep their firefighting skills sharp in a variety of fun activities. Fire prevention was a new focus, and Department firefighters visited the area day care centers and nursery schools, as well as Kent Center School each year to educate our youngest citizens about preventing fires. The Department changed its traditional parade uniform from red wool shirts to polyester ones. Black pants were added to the uniform, but wearing white pants continued for the town’s Memorial Day parade.
The Firemen’s Ball continued throughout the decade moving its location from Kent Center School to South Kent School and to outside the Town Hall under a tent. The Grand March was brought back to the Firemen’s Ball during the mid-1990s and attendees enjoyed saluting the members as they marched through the gathering. A town-wide letter was included with the Ball invitation to solicit donations, and the practice of selling tickets door-to-door with fire trucks ended.
Bingo was held for years during the decade at the Kent Community House on Sunday afternoons. A small group of dedicated volunteers ran the event, but the entire membership rotated through the weekly setup and cleanup for the event.
Membership increased during the 1990s and the cap on the number of members, as well as the age limit was removed. Women started to join in large numbers and soon became one third of the total membership. Auxiliary membership was established to encourage help at emergency scenes and to run fundraisers, particularly weekly bingo.
The Department recognized that getting teenagers involved in fire and emergency medical services could increase membership. In 1999, therefore, an Explorer Post was formed with teenage participants and with emergency members serving as the group’s advisors. This arrangement was later changed in 2008, to allow teens to become Junior members of the Department with duties that included riding along on EMS and fire calls. The Juniors continue today for high school age youth.
The Department added a president in 1993 to handle the administrative functions including presiding at monthly meetings, coordinating the annual budget and working with the fundraising chairs. The position was instituted to allow the Fire Chief to focus on fire service issues.
In 1994, the Department began awarding service pins for years of active service to recognize and encourage its long-time members.
The number of calls began to skyrocket during the 1990s, particularly for emergency medical services. By 1994, there were 160 fire calls and 278 ambulance calls. The Kent, a nursing home moved to town and dramatically increased EMS calls. A third independent school, Marvelwood School, purchased the former Skiff Mountain campus of Kent School, and brought an additional 150 students and 40 faculty and staff to town.
The desire to better document the Department’s procedures led to the establishment of Standard Operating Procedures in 1996. This document continues to be updated with a series of documents to help guide the members’ actions both on scenes and in non-emergency functions.
In the 1990s, the Fire Department began making plans in earnest for a new firehouse. The property on Swift Lane and Maple Street was determined to be too small to accommodate the projected building, housing 10 pieces of apparatus, ancillary equipment, offices and meeting rooms. A firehouse committee was formed, and its members toured recently-built firehouses for ideas. At the urging of First Selectman Bill Tobin the town considered purchasing 20 acres along Route 7 as a site for the building. Ultimately, however, the town did not buy the land.
The Town of Kent helped KVFD purchase the Kent Manufacturing building at 28 Maple Street in 2000. KVFD launched a capital campaign to raise the funds to construct the building. While a total of $350,000 was raised, it was clearly not enough to fund the construction. The Department turned to the town for help. A series of firehouse building committees were formed and plans proposed. Townspeople objected to several of the proposals, saying the building was too large. Eventually a $3.6 million plan was approved for a 15,000-square-foot building with five bays. The Department moved in and dedicated the new building in October 2008.
Fundraising continued to be a focus for the Department during the 2000s. The Firemen’s Ball was held under a tent at the new firehouse site on Maple Street, inside the Kent School hockey rink and in 2009 moved to the new firehouse where it continues to be held each June. In 2000 the Department began a Coin Drop, collecting coins in a boot, on Route 7 during Memorial Day weekend, produced a cookbook in 2004 and created a Kent afghan to raise funds for the new firehouse.
In an effort to retain members, the Department established a tax abatement program with the support of the town in 2002. The program remains in place today. Active emergency members must obtain a certain number of points responding to calls, training, meetings and non-emergency activities in order to qualify for $1,000 off their town property taxes.
The Department’s trucks became a part of the town’s capital planning, and in 2002 Rescue 8, an International, was the first vehicle purchased by the town and given to KVFD. In 2004, the ambulance caught on fire while it was parked inside the firehouse destroying the vehicle. A new 2004 ambulance was purchased through proceeds from the insurance.
Former Fire Chief Bob Soule passed away in November 2000, and the Department created an award in his name to annually recognize a member who does what is needed to get the job done. In 2002, the town held a Community Service at the First Congregational Church to honor the members of KVFD.
Calls continued to increase. In 2009, EMS calls reached 426 and the fire calls, 181.
The last 11 years of the Kent Volunteer Fire Department have included many changes. Probably the biggest adjustment for the volunteers has been moving into the new firehouse. After so many years of being in a cramped building, the Department now has the opportunity to host large-scale events, allow community organizations to use the building and finally have enough room for all its apparatus, records and members. The membership is grateful to the residents of Kent for the ongoing support they have provided both financially and personally as the Department made this transition.
A membership recruitment drive is currently underway and new emergency members are being sought to swell the ranks. Recruitment continues to be an ongoing issue for the 100-year-old Kent Volunteer Fire Department. With the help and support of residents, KVFD looks forward to the next 100 years and beyond.