Sunday, October 24, 2004

Newport's 150 years of firefighting

Open house to tout safety, new equipment

By Travis Gettys
Enquirer contributor

NEWPORT - In the early days of the Newport Fire Department, the all-volunteer firefighters used horse-drawn hand pumps, and water mains were made of wood, replaced later by metal fire hydrants.

What: Newport Fire Department 150th anniversary celebration.
When: Today, noon-4 p.m.
Where: Newport Fire Department, 10th and Monmouth streets.
Free food and drinks, and displays of historic firefighting equipment and old photographs.
"That's where the term (fire) plug comes from," Chief Larry Atwell said. "They used to just drill into the wooden mains, and then they'd plug it when they were done."

Today, the fire department celebrates its 150th anniversary with an open house from noon until 4 p.m., featuring a display of firefighting equipment and food and drinks.

The department was established March 15, 1854 - about the same time as Covington's and Cincinnati's. Newport celebrates the anniversary in October to coincide with national Fire Prevention Month, established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire Oct. 8, 1871.

Newport built a firehouse in 1866 at 10 E. Fourth St., near the current location of the World Peace Bell. Two years later, the city bought a steam-powered fire engine and began paying its firefighters.

The department stayed there until 1996, when it moved into the new city administration building at 10th and Monmouth streets, the site of an illegal fireworks factory explosion 15 years earlier.

A spark from a fan ignited gunpowder in the building, blowing up almost an entire city block and killing two men inside, said Capt. Bill Ravenscraft, a 27-year department veteran.

Ravenscraft was a part-time firefighter at the time , and his employer at a second job called to tell him about it at a delivery stop. "'The city of Newport just blew up - do you need to go to work?'" Ravenscraft remembers him asking.

The department - now 40 full-time paid members - has undergone many changes since he joined, Ravenscraft said, but none has been more significant than the increased emphasis on firefighter safety since the early 1980s.

"Back then, if you wore an SCBA - a self-contained breathing apparatus - you were a sissy," he said.

Atwell, fire chief since 1987, said attitudes have shifted as technology improved, making uniforms more heat and flame-retardant.

"(Firefighters) realized that if they take better care of themselves, they can serve the public better," Atwell said.

The department was the first in Northern Kentucky to lose a firefighter in the line of duty - Samuel Barber in 1861 - but has not lost another since its second, Lee Howe, died from injuries he received on his way to a fire in 1904.

Motorized fire engines replaced horse-drawn pumps in the early 20th century. The department's last horse, "Old Captain Jim," retired in 1918, after 19 years and 1,500 runs.

The horse had joined the department one year after the greatest fire in Newport history, which started July 20, 1898, at the Unnewehr Sawmill in West Newport and destroyed the mill and 16 homes.

Newport firefighters also responded May 28, 1977, to the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, which killed 165 people and destroyed the landmark nightclub.

The department hopes to reduce the risk of large, fatal fires like those by instituting twice-a-year fire inspections at businesses. Ravenscraft said the plan works because the number of citations has decreased since stepped-up inspections began.

Atwell said departments place more emphasis on prevention and early detection than when he first became a firefighter almost 50 years ago.

"In the long run, it's going to reduce the number of fires, (and) if we discover the fire earlier, we can respond earlier," Atwell said.

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