Fire Department History
A fire occurring at the Richard Hook Residence in 1930 played a major role in the history of the Gurnee Fire Department. The Bucket Brigade method previously used for extinguishing fires proved insufficient in putting out this fire. The barn was a total loss and the house was severely damaged. The incident was enough to put Joseph Dada, Sr. on a mission to create a fire department. After much community debate and many roadblocks, an ordinance was passed on March 3, 1930 creating a Fire Tax. The following year, the department’s first fire truck was purchased from Peter Pirsch and Sons Company of Kenosha, WI for $5,500.65.
Joseph Dada, Sr. served as the first Chief of the Gurnee Fire Department. Staffed by volunteers from the community, the fire department responded out of the rear of McClure’s garage. R.W. McClure agreed to house the equipment for $150.00 per year. The department, established as a non-profit corporation, protected the area from the Waukegan City Limits on the east, to US Route 45 on the west, and the town lines on the North and South. Members were alerted to calls for help by a siren mounted on an old windmill erected on the roof of McClure’s. The siren was activated by Loretta Stafford Ray who was also the telephone switchboard operator. Mrs. Ray lived in the apartment above the garage and operated the switchboard for 26 years.
An unfortunate tragedy occurred on February 14, 1932 as John Gart became the first and only member of the Gurnee Fire Department to be killed in the line of duty. Gart was killed as he fell off of a responding fire truck as it was turning on Green Bay Road at Grand Avenue.
The Warren-Waukegan Fire Protection District was formed in 1935. The district encompassed the areas outside the corporate limits of the Village of Gurnee. As a result, the District levied a tax and contracted with the Village for fire protection. In March of 1937, the Gurnee Fire Department entered into a contract with the Warren-Waukegan Fire Protection District for $1800 a year.
1948 saw further expansion of the Gurnee Fire Department as property once owned by the Modern Woodman Lodge was given to the Village for a new fire station. The fire department actually loaned money to the Village of Gurnee for the materials to get the fire station built. The total cost of the project was around $13,000.00 with the majority of the labor donated by villagers. Technological advancements were made in December as the fire department contracted with Lake County Radio Department for its first two-way radios.
A major renovation was completed in 1953 as Engine 742 was rebuilt with an all steel body and tank. Previous to this rebuild, 742 had a wooden tank due to the shortage of steel during the Second World War. In 1954 the old barn on the Bill Barnstable Farm on Grange Hall Road burned down to the ground in January. It was believed that a gas blow torch used for thawing water pipes found at the scene caused the fire. However, no one admitted to using the blow torch.
May of 1954 was the start of 35 years of stability for the department as Sam Dada, son of Joseph Dada, was elected the fourth Fire Chief of the Gurnee Fire Department.
In August of 1956, Gurnee's first fire hydrant was installed at Warren High School. However, unlike today’s fire hydrants, it was only used to fill fire department water tanks during fires or to haul water for people's cisterns. In March of 1959, 28 years after the first vehicle purchase, the department took delivery of their second mid-ship mounted pumper. This vehicle had a rated pumping capacity of 750 G.P.M. and an 800 gallon booster tank and served the department for close to 30 years.
In November of 1962, a two-way radio for use in the Fire Chief's private vehicle was purchased. Prior to this time, two-way radios were not allowed in privately owned vehicles due to a ruling of the Lake County Board. This change greatly enhanced communications for the fire service as a whole in Lake County.
On September 3, 1963, Joseph Dada Sr., the first Fire Chief of the Gurnee Fire Department passed away.
In November of 1964, a major fire destroyed two large barns at the Spinney Run Dairy Farms on Rt. 21 near what is now the Heather Ridge area. Also, the first piece of apparatus utilized strictly as a rescue and equipment truck was purchased. This unit was a used vehicle and was described as a "bread truck” type van with a large enclosed area for equipment and supplies.
In June of 1967, the fire department took delivery on a new brush truck built on a Dodge four- wheel drive chassis and was known as unit 743. This new unit replaced the original 1950 brush vehicle built on a Jeep chassis.
On, August 31, 1967, William "Bill" Dalziel passed away at the age of 71. Dalziel was the original department Secretary and had held that position for 33 years. He was also a Charter member of the Gurnee Fire Department. Larry Klemm succeeded Mr. Dalziel as Department Secretary.
In June of 1968, the first paid dispatchers were hired to answer emergency calls and handle radio dispatching. Prior to this, daytime calls for help were answered at McClure’s garage and night and Sunday calls were answered at the homes of six firemen. “Phone Duty” meant you could not leave the house unless someone was inside to answer the phone.
In January of 1969, the first fire alarm monitoring panel was installed, giving the community the capability of having private fire alarm systems monitored on a 24 hour basis. In August of 1969, a new 1000 gallon per minute pumping engine was placed in service. This unit replaced a 1942 unit which outlived its usefulness and only had a pumping capacity of 350 gallons per minute. In the fall of 1969, the Village of Gurnee purchased the first municipal owned fire department vehicle. This vehicle was used by the Fire Chief for department duties and the other responsibilities that he had as Superintendent of Public Works.
In July of 1972 the original chartered Gurnee Volunteer Fire Department was disbanded as a non-profit corporation. As a result, all equipment and apparatus were turned over to the Village of Gurnee. The department at this time became a municipal fire department, governed by the Village President (Mayor) and Board of Trustees of the Village of Gurnee.
In 1972, members of the fire department requested permission to start a campaign raising money for what was known as "The Crusade for Life." The original campaign’s goal was to raise money for heart monitoring equipment. Also, the department applied for a grant from the State of Illinois to purchase the first Mobile Intensive Care Unit. However, in 1973 the grant was rejected and members re-intensified their efforts to raise sufficient funds to cover the entire project including the vehicle, equipment, and supplies. With assistance of civic and social organizations, village government, and the general public, sufficient money was raised.
The creation of paid Fire Chief also occurred in 1973. Sam Dada filed the role. In addition, the purchase of a 1946 aerial ladder truck from the Highland Park Fire Department occurred. Even though the necessity of this purchase was debated, a fire at Warren High School in the spring of 1974 proved the worth of this investment.
In November of 1974, the first Mobile Intensive Care Unit was delivered and put into service along with the “Paramedic” program. The community now had medically trained personnel that could start IV fluids, administer life-saving medications, and defibrillate a cardiac arrest patient if necessary.
In 1975 the fire department took over the west half of the old village owned quonset building to house Engine 744 and Brush Truck 743. The qounset was located across the street from the fire station. Around this time, talks for a new fire station began in order to accommodate all of the equipment in one building.
Four years after the creation of the paid position of Fire Chief, the GFD hired its first paid firefighters on July 15, 1977. These four men were Ron Gramer, Don Komers, Tim McGrath, and Bob Sheldon. They were hired to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week with three firefighters on duty each day from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Along with serving as firefighters, these men also provided paramedic service.
In October of 1977, the fire department took delivery of a “Mini Pumper” crash rescue unit. This unit carried auto-extrication equipment as well as small tools and supplies. However, due to the station already being overcrowded, this unit was added to the apparatus being garaged in the quonset building.
One of the most memorable fires in Gurnee History occurred on December 20, 1984 as Warren Township High School on O’Plaine Road suffered major fire damage. Two fires were set in the audio-visual room, the second one causing the majority of the damage. Warren Township High School student Steve Olsen, who admitted to setting the fire because he was angry at a particular teacher after a chorus concert, pleaded guilty to arson. $6 to $7 million dollars in damage to the high school occurred. Because of the massive fire, classes at Warren had to be moved to Lake Forest High School’s West Campus. A new high school was built in 1987 at its current location of 500 North O’Plaine Road.
The fire department had to deal with “The 100 Year Flood” in the spring of 1986. The flood caused over one million dollars worth of damage to the Gurnee area. The Des Planes River crested at 11.95 feet. The Gurnee Fire Department moved its operations to the Warren Newport Libraryand then to the Church of Latter-Day Saints due to the station being completely surrounded by flood waters.
Another major fire occurred in Gurnee as the Rustic Manor Restaurant went up in flames on January 8, 1987. The fire was believed to have started in the barbeque pit from hot coals. The building had to be demolished and the location was eventually turned into what is now known as Esper Peterson Park.
The end of the decade saw a changing of guard. After 35 years of service as Fire Chief, Sam Dada retired in 1989. Tim McGrath, one of the origional four paid members and Deputy Chief at the time became the department’s fifth Fire Chief.
As Gurnee started to expand west of Interstate 94 with the opening of Gurnee Mills Mall and residential and commercial growth, a pressing need for a second fire station arose. After years of trying to raise the funds, ground was finally broken for the second fire station in 1994. The dedication ceremony for the new facility occurred on May 12, 1995 and honored past chiefs Joseph Dada, Sr. and Sam Dada. Station #2 is located on the corner of Hunt Club Road and Dada Drive.
In 1997 the first shift commander was placed in a command vehicle. The Gurnee Fire Department was growing rapidly and this change was necessary in order to handle incidents and direct personnel effectively and efficiently.
Another changing of the guard occurred in 1998 as Tim McGrath stepped down as Fire Chief. McGrath served as a paid member of the department for 21 years. Fred Friedl, the Deputy Chief, took over as Chief and is currently serving in that capacity.
In January of 1999, the department’s first five-alarm fire occurred in a barn filled with machinery equipment. The barn was located off of Dilley’s Road just south of Jim Onan’s Pyramid House complex. This was an intense fire due to extreme cold conditions and many explosions from fuel and propane tanks in the building.
Fire Marshal Don Komers, one of Gurnee’s original full-time firefighters retired in 2003. Komers, who was hired full-time in 1977, was promoted to Fire Marshall in 1980 and held that position until his retirement. To honor Fire Marshal Komers, March 22, 2003 was declared “Don Komers Day” by Mayor Don Rudny. Currently, Thomas Keefe holds the position of Fire Marshal.
History would repeat itself as another massive flood occurred in 2004. Again the floods caused around one million dollars worth of damage to the Gurnee area. The Des Plaines River crested at 11.69 feet. Due to flooding that surrounded station one, operations had to be moved to the current police station at O’Plaine Road and Washington Street.
In 2005 the department responded to 5420 emergency calls. A record 579 calls were received in the month of July alone. Also, over 1200 students were instructed in CPR, and over 7,200 children were taught about fire safety through the Public Education Division.