The History of the Chicago Civil Defense
Chicago Fire Department - E.P.D.S. Unit
In 1957, then Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn had an idea. He knew of six heavy duty rescue trucks that the Federal Government had supplied the city, to use as they saw fit. The rescue vehicles were all brand new, fully equipped but just sitting idle in City of Chicago garages, collecting dust and waiting for the big one. After meeting with Charles (Jimmy) Johnson, a long time friend of Quinn's and an avid fire fan, Quinn decided to approach Mayor Richard J. Daley with a plan for these Rescue Squads.
It would involve an all-volunteer unit to facilitate and operate this equipment with proper training and personnel to provide ancillary support at fires and other disasters. Johnson would be the civilian Chief of the unit. A handful of volunteers were gathered together between October of 1957 and January of 1958. The Chicago Civil Defense, Fire and Rescue Unit was then born.
The first day the unit was in service, members responded to a major extra-alarm fire at 54 E. Hubbard St. It was immediately known from that point on, that the organization could play a vital role in the non-hazardous duties at fire scenes and other disasters within the city and the outlying suburbs. The tasks of raising ground ladders, leading out large lines/boat hose, working with the Engine Companies, Fire Engineers, placing the pumper(s) into hard suction or drafting, thawing out frozen hydrants with propane torch's, clearing sewers of ice and debris, rolling and re-bedding hose, lighting up incidents with lightwagon’s as well as countless other types of work at a fire scene. This could only work with an ongoing training program that would involve classroom, film demonstration and hands-on situations. Training would be mandatory for all members on a weekly basis through the Chicago Fire Academy.
Along with fire duty, the Fire and Rescue Unit, could be utilized in Special Duty calls at, el or train wrecks, airplane crashes, major floods, or other weather related incidents such as, downed or dangerous trees, dewatering basements at hospitals or other vital structures, as well as providing emergency power through portable and large mobile generator units. The use of ventilation fans for smoke and toxic fume removal, proved to be an asset as well. In the early years, the rescue squads were equipped with resuscitators, Port-A-Power hydraulic tools, thawing devices, chain saws, K-12 saws, winches, roto-hammers, and many other specialized hand tools and equipment to enhance operations at any fire and rescue incident. All members were also trained in advanced first aid courses.
In the early years the rescue squads were placed in service at Chicago Firehouse's throughout the city. CD members would report to the firehouse that quartered the CD apparatus needed and then respond to the incident.
On February 2, 1960, the city provided Civil Defense and its members with an existing firehouse that was no longer being used. Headquarters would be located at 1244 N. Wells
(Engine Co. 27's old quarters) for many years to come. It was a two bay house, with one side housing the main apparatus floor, with all working systems found in any firehouse. A working kitchen, waker bell, joker-stand with register, Marshal line, speaker systems, sliding poles, furnished bunkroom, hose tower and showers. The other bay, commonly known as the shop, was the area where, most mechanical work was done by the volunteer members. The shop bay also served as a gasoline depot for Chicago Fire Department's Chiefs buggies, ambulances, or any other apparatus that needed fuel in the area. Most of the fabrication and mechanical work for such apparatus as turret units, (Big Mo 6-7-2 and Big John 6-7-3), were done here as well as providing man hours for these special units and countless other one of a kind apparatus! The Headquarters would be manned as close to 24/7 as possible. Regular duty watch schedules were assigned to all members ensuring personnel would be available for most emergencies.
The members of this unit worked side by side, hand in hand with members of the city's fire department. The Chicago Civil Defense Unit, would respond to 2-11 alarms or greater, citywide. There was also a high value, Still and Box alarm response district that covered the downtown area of the city as well. CD was also available for special calls from Chiefs
in the field to access additional equipment and or manpower at any incident as needed through communications by the Fire Alarm Offices.
The organization taught teamwork, discipline and other attributes that were the backbone of the unit. Many CD members went on to make the fire service a career in either the city or suburbs. The experience these volunteer members received was priceless in their endeavors. While some members chose to be professionals, a majority did it strictly for the love and excitement of the fire service. Just the feeling of being able to make a difference or to give back to the community was all these men required. The idea of honor and tradition in the brotherhood of the fire service, that they would be proud to be a part of.
In the mid-seventies, Chicago Civil Defense was reorganized and renamed. Under Federal Government guidelines, it would now be known as the Chicago Fire Department - E.P.D.S. or Chicago Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Services. A new coordinator, Chief George Schuller, would take over the operations of the volunteer unit. Chief Schuller was an active and experienced Division Fire Marshal, and had been a long time member of the C.F.D. Bureau of Fire Investigation. Under his direction, the organization took a giant step forward with better and updated equipment and apparatus.
Existing blue and white CD apparatus were repainted and relettered to more traditional red and white Chicago Fire Department coloring and lettering. New fire department vehicles, such as light wagons, a Triage Unit, and other manpower apparatus were placed in service with the volunteers. Members were also able to opt for the leather helmet over the traditional MSA plastic/fiberglass type helmets used since 1960.
On September 30th 1978, another big change took place. The city relocated Company Quarters from 1244 N. Wells Street, to Engine 49's old quarters at 1653 W.43rd St., just west of the old Union Stockyard District on the south side of the city.
This was a two bay house as well. The firehouse location was thought to be more centralized, for incidents throughout the city. The firehouse was in much better shape, seeing as how the old firehouse on Wells St. was erected shortly after the Great Chicago Fire in 1874 (with a hay loft upstairs). With the new Company Quarters, came new turn-out gear more apparatus, new members and a much larger Still and Box alarm district to respond to.
Sadly in July 1989, the city determined it was no longer feasible to maintain the firehouse, equipment and members. On July 23, 1989, it was over! The final signal for Chicago Fire Dept. - E.P.D.S. Co. 4-7-3, 4-7-4 and 4-7-9, was transmitted to the E.F.A.O. [3-3-2-4] at 0800 hours, by Orders of Chief Altwasser, officially placing the Company/Unit, permanently out of service!
For the first time since 1958, the city no longer had an all-volunteer unit, supplementing the greatest fire department in the world! Of course the city would survive the separation, but it left many questions unanswered. Was it closed because of union strife, or had it become more of a cost cutting liability? Could it simply have been, it had out lived its usefulness, or a combination of all? Whichever way, it left a void in many members hearts. Civilian members, who thought nothing about going to an alarm at 2:00 a.m. on a cold night, to help at a fire or disaster and then have to go to their regular place of employment later in the morning. Members that gave up their Monday nights, and free time to be with their families, just to participate in training and maintenance along with housework at Company Quarters. Members who ate powdered sugar donuts, cheese and bologna sandwiches with warm coffee, rather than a home cooked meal, while at fires and disasters on Christmas Day or any other holiday!
Many long time friendships were made by members that have lasted well over forty years. Sadly, the City of Chicago makes NO mention at all, of the Chicago Fire Department - Emergency Preparedness & Disaster Services, in any manner of this once strong and dedicated unit. They have tried to replace the unit with the city's new version of emergency preparedness volunteers now known as the C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team) under the O.E.M.C. direction.
The Chicago Civil Defense-Fire & Rescue Unit/Chicago Fire Dept. - E.P.D.S. Unit, now lives through this official website, the 2011 reunion party, great memories, sharing of old war stories and memorabilia, which the members still have. Along with help from the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, the 5-11 Club Support Services and the M.E.S.S. Support Service originations, by the camaraderie that Chicago Civil Defense-Fire & Rescue/Chicago Fire Dept. - E.P.D.S. Unit former members still shares with these organizations!