Pioneering Danbury fire chief to be recognized

From the News-Times

DANBURY -- Howard P. Stevens' tenure as Danbury's fire chief lasted just over a year, ending in controversy after a deadly 1885 fire that local historians have called the worst since British troops burned the town to the ground during he Revolutionary War.

But the changes the 27-year-old son of a factory owner helped bring about still impact the lives of firefighters across the state today, and on Thursday, Stevens will recognized, along with eight other 19th century fire fighting pioneers, by the organization they co-founded.

"We wouldn't even be an organization if it wasn't for those guys," said Ted Schroll of Wethersfield, legislative representative of the Connecticut State Firefighters Association.

A total of 17 people will be inducted into the association's Hall of Fame at a dinner at the Aqua Turf in Southington, and will have their names inscribed on plaques at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks, said William Coffey, longtime member of the Padanaram Hose Co. in Danbury and co-chairman of the event.

Eight of the inductees are of more recent vintage, but Stevens and his contemporaries are being recognized as the CSFA's "founding fathers," Coffey said.

More than 12 decades after Stevens was forced from his position, information about his life and career is hard to find.

There are no photos of him in either the fire department records or in the archives of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society. Most of what is known is included in the book written by local resident Donald C. Woods in 1970, "A History of the Danbury Fire Department 1829-1969," or in a few old city directories.

Fire Chief Geoffrey Herald said he's seen Stevens' name on old department rosters, which list his predecessor's rank as "Chief Engineer," a traditional title Herald said is still used in some fire departments.

For years after Danbury was first settled, according to Woods' history, local firefighting efforts were pretty much limited to volunteer bucket brigades that more often than not would watch a fire rather than try to put it out.

By the time Stevens joined Kohanza Hose, one of the then-boroughs of Danbury's four fire companies, departments were more organized, but equipment and techniques remained primitive.

A town-wide system of fire alarms had been established a few years earlier, but Danbury's leaders considered the most advanced apparatus of the era, a steam-powered pumper capable of shooting streams of water high enough to reach the upper floors of the tallest buildings in town, too expensive and refused to buy one.

Axes, ladders and hoses were the most frequently-used tools, and serious injuries to firefighters were common.

By early 1884, Stevens had achieved the rank of assistant chief engineer, and was named by his fellow firefighters to a committee that petitioned the state Legislature to provide compensation for those injured in the line of duty. They wanted the money to come from taxes on insurance companies, who they reasoned were beneficiaries of firefighters' labors.

But lawmakers failed to pass the bill, so Stevens organized a meeting of all fire chiefs in the state in New Haven. On May 22, 1884, the Connecticut State Fireman's Association was incorporated, and Stevens was elected as one of its two vice presidents.

As a result of the association's efforts, the Legislature passed the compensation bill during its next session.

While 1884 was a good year for firefighters in Danbury, 1885 was a disaster, according to Woods.

On June 2, an explosion, believed to have been caused by a gas leak, sparked a massive fire at the Beckerle Hat Factory. Water pressure was so low that firefighters couldn't extinguish the flames, which quickly spread to several adjacent buildings, including the nearby Beckerle Hose fire station. Stevens had to ask Norwalk to send their steam pumper, but by the time it arrived, five people were dead, two firefighters were seriously hurt and countless other workers and firefighters suffered lesser injuries.

Property loss was estimated at $250,000, a substantial sum for the time, and 475 hat factory employees were thrown out of work.

In the wake of the blaze, Stevens fell out of favor with borough officials, and they called for his resignation.

He quit on June 16, but a week later, firefighters re-elected him as chief. The borough warden refused, however, to confirm him, and the man that Woods called "probably the most progressive and enlightened man to hold down that position since the formation of the department" faded into obscurity.

Ironically, the two Danbury firefighters injured in the Beckerle Hat Factory blaze became the first to collect compensation under the bill that Howard and the CFSA championed, and today, the organization has grown to include 27,000 paid and volunteer firefighters

In addition, the CFSA lobbies the General Assembly on firefighter issues, oversees disability payments to those hurt in the lien of duty and runs the nine regional fire training schools around the state.

Contact John Pirro


or at (203) 731-3342.

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