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History of the Mercer Island Fire Department

Until Mercer Island established a professional Fire Department, it relied on volunteer firefighters to protect its homes, businesses, and open spaces. The volunteers lived on the Island and were members of King County Fire Protection District #21, which came into existence shortly after the end of World War II.

The Fire Commissioners were elected by the voters and had the responsibility for planning and for spending tax revenues. The first elected fire commissioners were Tommy Tomlinson, Nelson Rochester, and Bill Morrow. Jack Wallace served as secretary. When Tomlinson left, voters elected Jack Wallace as commissioner, and Al Fleury became secretary. Henry Borgendale served as the first fire chief, and he was succeeded by Harry Slater who was succeeded by Garfield Alm.

Left to right in picture: Commissioners: M. W. Tomlinson, Bill Morrow, and Nels Rochester.
Firemen: Elwin Morin, Hugh Riley, Dave Dillworth, Bob Hartman, Ed Rock, Bill Green,
Roy Lowe, Gar Alm, Ed Maloof, Harold Tate, Harry Slater (Chief),
and Bob Dressel. Caretaker of the station: John Christenson.

Rochester's Garage served as the nerve center for the volunteers. It was located approximately to what is now westbound exit 8 near the East Channel Bridge. Mabel Rochester fielded the phone calls. She would then phone as many volunteers as she could reach, reporting the location and type of fire. Volunteers then made their own way to the fire.

Initially, the equipment consisted of a hose cart and a few pump cans. Because of this inadequate equipment an easily controlled fire resulted in more serious damage. In 1947 the volunteer firefighters acquired a used fire truck of questionable background and age. It was dubbed #1 and was housed with the hose cart in a shed on property owned by Bill Green adjacent to his veterinary clinic. That site today is just east of the present City Hall parking lot. Truck #1 was a "real beast." All volunteers had to pass rigid driving tests as well as to pass tests to operate the pumps. The "beast" could carry 500 gallons of water, heavy hoses, ladders, etc. It wasn't very speedy but it was an improvement.

In 1946-47 Fire Commissioner Nelson Rochester donated a triangle-shaped section of land to build a fire station at SE 27th Street and 76th Avenue SE. It cost $12,000 to build. The contract provided that the land and improvements would revert to Mr. Rochester when no longer used as a fire station.

The station contained two truck bays, a small shop space, a meeting room, and a small apartment for a caretaker. The first caretakers were John Christianson and his bulldog, Buster. John remained on duty day and night to take fire calls, set off the sirens, and phone the volunteers. Using a hand-cranked phone he could activate two sirens, one atop the station and one atop the Standard Supply Store at 62nd S.E. Avenue and S.E. 28th Street just east of Calkins Landing. Christianson and Mrs. Rochester each had a list of volunteers to call.

In 1951 the volunteers received a second truck, specially built on a GMC chassis, and equipped to carry 500 gallons of water, hoses, ladders, etc. The Island had no central water except for a small area at Mercer Crest and a few pools. But water from Lake Washington was accessible thanks to several county docks remaining from the ferry days. The docks could not support a fire truck but the street ends provided access to the lake. Large suction hoses vacuumed the water into the truck tank. But to shuttle between the fires and the closest dock consumed vital time. Often, a fire seemingly under control would rekindle while the trucks went after more water.

In addition to being supplied with bunker boots, pants, coat, and helmet, in 1950 the volunteers received special radio monitors to keep at home. These were activated from the fire station and gave each volunteer the location and type of fire. The volunteers met every Thursday evening for drills, equipment testing, classes in fire management, and first aid, and anything else that was necessary for them to perform their duties.

Volunteers recall that the biggest fires they battled occurred at the Shorewood Apartments that nearly destroyed an entire building, one at the Blue Sky Vista condominiums, and a large brush fire at the south end of the Island about where the fire station and QFC Village Shopping Center are now located. That fire lasted for two or three days, and involved relays of volunteers because they had their regular jobs to attend to.

Up until the mid-1960s the Volunteers received no pay; then they were rewarded $7 for each fire call they answered. In their 15 to16 year history an estimated 50 to 70 volunteers served, but never more than 30 active members at one time.

In 1962 Islanders hired a professional fire chief, Earl Brower, who had retired as fire chief in Everett. Now began the change from a volunteer department to a full-time paid one. The volunteers bequeathed a remarkable record. During their years only one fatality was attributed to a fire.

Volunteer Firefighters

Fred Alm, Gar Alm, Thor Auguston, Tom Barto, Percy Bliss, Oscar Bolstad, Leonard Bonifaci, Henry Borgendale, Doug Christiansen, Dave Dillworth, Bob Dressell, Dick Elings, Eugene Goodland, Bill Green, Bob Hartman, Ed Hirschberg, John Jarvis, Ken Kander, Roger Kenyon, Bo Lightfoot, Howard Lightfoot, Cecil Little, Bob Look, Roy Lowe, Ed Maloof, Gordon McAllister, Brian McFerrin, Bob McCloskey, Elwin Morin, Howard Pande, Al Perret, Hugh Riley, Joe Roberson, Wayne Robinson, Ed Rock, Marvin Sacquitne, Frank Sand, Harry Slater, Don Smith, Gordon Stacey, Bill Stanger, Chick Tabit, Harold Tate, James Tyo, George Tyrell, John Waymire, Tom Westad, John Wilhite, Roger Wood, and Bruce Young

Ed Maloof's Notes Of a Volunteer Fireman

"In the very early days a siren atop a power pole at the southeast corner of S.E. 28th Street and 61st Avenue S.E. alerted the volunteer firefighters. The siren was near the Standard Supply Store in East Seattle. Setting off the siren was Mabel Rochester of the nearby Rochester Garage. Volunteers would rush to a phone in a black cabinet that was attached to the pole and get a message giving the location of the fire. A volunteer then chalked on the cabinet in LARGE LETTERS the address of the fire site. The first to respond would then run to the truck parked at the Craft Guild about a half block south on 61st Avenue S.E. and speed to the fire. Volunteers who arrived later read the address and then drove speedily to the fire."


"Water was a severe problem before the Island got fire hydrants. We volunteers all carried pump cans--five-gallon capacity-- which surprisingly were quite effective on fires fought in their early stages. We also encouraged people to keep a charged garden hose at all times. Our truck carried a hard suction hose about 12 feet long and about 10 inches in diameter. The intake was located on the truck's front bumpers. We would drive to the foot of Lake Washington at S.E. 32nd Street, run the front wheels of the truck into the lake until the the bottom of the wheel rims were in the water (about six inches). Then we would take the heavy, awkward, miserable hard suction hose, connect it to the intake on the bumper, take the other end of the suction hose as far it would reach into the lake. A filter on the hose kept it from sucking in pebbles. Then the truck, its 500-gallon water tank filled, would go back to the fire. In those early days most people had their own wells. Those living in East Seattle area bought their water from the Attleseys who had a storage tank and large spring on their property. Pipes from the property went down almost every street in the area (remember, there were no hydrants). Two or three other locations on the island also had "mini-water systems."

"Residents also made arrangements with neighbors who had large wells and a storage tank. We volunteers obtained agreements to tap into these tanks. One morning I left for an early morning class at the University of Washington. When I returned in the early afternoon my neighbor's house was almost gutted. My volunteer buddies at the scene said they had almost beaten down the fire when they ran out of water. They then had to drive about four blocks to the foot of 32nd Street to refill with lake water. When they came back to the fire the structure was nearly gone. To this day, my heart still bleeds for my neighbor. What a tragedy. A few years later Islanders formed water districts, and then came the hydrants."