Birmingham, Ala.

Birmingham, Ala.

Birmingham Fire Academy and Station 20 opened in 1961

Photo by Cabe Norris, Jr.

Equipment at Birmingham’s Fire Headquarters about 1890 included steamer, hose reel and ladder truckBirmingham’s present headquarters has six companies and district chief. Fire alarm headquarters is on second floor and chief of department’s office at left

—Photo by Cabe Norris, Jr.

Power unit built in department shops. Unique apparatus is equipped with high-output generator and air compressor

Incorporated in 1871, Birmingham had its first major fire in 1872. Helpless citizens watched several buildings on Third Avenue and 20th Street burn to the ground without benefit of a fire department. To avoid repetition of such an embarrassing situation, Pioneer Fire Department No. 1 was organized in early 1873 by volunteer citizens who ran a manual pumper under the command of Dr. J. B. Luckie, first fire chief.

At this time, the city had all the aspects of a frontier town, but it was sitting on top of one of the richest lodes of iron and limestone in the world. It had such a rapid and phenomena] growth that it became known throughout the world as the Magic City.

As it grew the fire department grew with it. By 1884, Birmingham had changed from a volunteer to a paid department, with full-time men operating steam fire engines. Annexations throughout the years gradually added to the city limits until now it sprawls 6 miles across a series of ridges that are actually the foothills of the Appalachians, and runs down the enclosed valleys some 15 miles. Spread over 75 square miles, the population has grown to 341,000 and is protected by a well-equipped fire department led by Chief John L. Swindle with a force of 442 men.

Like the city itself, the Birmingham Fire Department has always been amenable to growth and change. The department received its first steamer just one year after the paid men were installed. In 1909 it was one of the first to purchase a motor-driven pumper. And in 1916 it was the first of the larger cities in the country to become completely motorized. Today (ho department operates 25 engines, four trucks, two combination pumpertrucks and two hose tenders. In addition there are 11 reserve engines always on call, and a 100-foot aerial which is immediately dispatched to serious fires.

As recently as April 1963 the citizens of Birmingham passed a bond issue of $550,000 by a majority of 2 to 1 to provide three new fire stations, nine new 1,000-gpm pumpers and two elevating platforms. When these purchases are completed the department will have no first-line pumpers or trucks more than 15 years old. All this on top of eight new fire stations that have been built since 1960!

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To properly care for apparatus and buildings the complete and modem block-long shops have both crew and facilities for any repair job that comes up. In 1961, under the supervision of S. W. Cook, superintendent of fire equipment, the shops stripped down and completely rebuilt a 100-foot aerial. In 1962 they designed and built a new power unit.

An important change during 1962 was the consolidating under one supervisor of all maintenance facilities including alarm and buildings.

Fire prevention

In 1917 Birmingham embarked on a limited fire prevention program with one full-time man inspecting downtown buildings. Captains from each company were required to inspect all buildings with central heating plants. By 1936 five full-time inspectors were in the field, one of them designated as fire marshal. Since installation of apparatus radio the department has committed the entire personnel to a continuous year-round fire prevention program.


One of the most important changes in Birmingham’s training program occurred in 1961 with the dedication of the handsome new training academy. This building, which adjoins Fire Station 20, was built on the training grounds that holds the older drill tower and fire training building, and brought complete training facilities to one spot for the first time. Chief F. E. Swann directs the training operations which includes instruction of industrial fire brigades.


Birmingham’s first alarm system was installed in 1891 and consisted of 20 street boxes. In 1921 a completely new system was installed with a new alarm building which also housed a fire company and the chief’s office on the first floor. With additional circuits and boxes this system is still in use. However, alarms are no longer sent out over the circuits to fire stations; instead, radio transmissions are used.

Radio made its appearance in 1944 when a receiver was installed in the chief’s car and the service truck at Station 1, operating on the police frequency. Transmitters were added a year later, and the fire department received its own frequency in 1950. The present system was established in 19.56 with all apparatus radioequipped.

Changes to come

As with most other chiefs in the country, Chief Swindle is beset with the problem of manpower. Response to fires is good for the most part, with four men per company responding to outlying sections and five to downtown areas. However, there is no provision for replacements during vacation, sick or other leaves, which makes for undermanning. On the bright side of this problem is an open budget line left for men on military leave which can be filled by other members working overtime. Improvement is also sought in the fire prevention bureau which is believed understaffed in relation to cities of similar size. He would also like additional people for public relations, records and research.

More adequate coverage of certain sections of the city with ladder companies is desired, but the biggest change involves the municipal airport, 2 miles from the heart of downtown. Present protection is afforded by an Air National Guard Unit and a private company which is engaged in plane remodeling for the Air Force.

The chief is not satisfied with this arrangement, which is somewhat informal and with no concrete commitments, since it is within the corporate limits for which he is charged with fire protection. He would definitely like to establish an airport company.

There is a new form of government in Birmingham, one that the chief feels will look with favor on needed changes in the fire department.

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