Fire Department History
After the Village of Wheeling was incorporated in 1894, the village leaders went to work addressing the many needs associated with the growing community. Approximately 18 months after its incorporation, the Village determined that one of its pressing needs was the establishment of a fire department. Christ Uetz, the Village’s Fire Marshal (later to be referred to as “Fire Chief”), was placed in charge of developing the village’s fire department in December 1896. During its first year of operation, the fire department acquired a number of buckets, ladders, axes, and fire hooks to be used by various volunteer members of the community in the event of a fire. On November 5, 1897, the village leaders adopted Ordinance 23 establishing the first fire prevention code for the community, as well as establishing the responsibilities of the Fire Marshal (i.e. Fire Chief). The ordinance created various requirements for local businesses regarding the installation of stove pipes and chimneys, the use of candles and lanterns, kerosene storage, and disposal of hot ashes. The ordinance further required the Fire Marshal to account for, inspect, and maintain the Village’s firefighting equipment. Chief Uetz was the proprietor of the local Columbia Hotel on what became known as Milwaukee Avenue and served as the Village’s first Fire Chief from 1896 to 1898. Years later Chris Uetz was accidentally shot and killed in the hotel’s bar room.
Dispatching of the fire department in these early years was not very sophisticated. If a fire was spotted, residents would yell outside for help. Someone would run to the homes or businesses of the local volunteer firefighters, while someone else would run to a centrally located large bell that would be rung during an emergency. Upon hearing either the bell or the yelling of residents, the volunteer firefighters would gather the limited firefighting equipment they had and proceed to the fire. This system would remain this way until the addition of the telephone was brought to the community in the early 1900’s.
Over the next few years, the Village fire department acquired a hand-pulled chemical fire engine. This unit consisted of a large pressure vessel filled with water and sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) with a secondary container inside that held sulfuric acid. Attached to the large pressure vessel was a long rubber hose and a nozzle. The unit would be pulled to the fire by several men, a locking pin on the side of the large pressure vessel would be released, and this would cause the pressure vessel to invert. The sulfuric acid would mix with the solution of water and sodium bicarbonate to create carbon dioxide gas. As the gas expanded, it pressurized the pressure vessel to expel the water through the hose and nozzle. The unit was very likely helpful in controlling a number of fires throughout the community. But it had serious draw-backs; its firefighting capabilities were limited to the water contained within the pressure vessel and could not be recharged on the scene. If the nozzle was not opened immediately after inverting the pressure vessel, the expanding gas could cause the entire unit to explode.
On May 9, 1904, almost 10 years after incorporation of the community, the Village agreed to purchase a hand-pulled fire pumper from the Fire Extinguisher Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Illinois for $450.00. As part of the purchase agreement, the Village traded-in its chemical fire engine for several additional pieces of fire hose. This wooden fire engine was pulled to the fire by several men. A long rubber hose connected to the fire engine was dropped into a local well, stream, or the Des Plaines River and then several men would manually operate its pump to move water to a single fire hose. It was a major advancement in the fire department’s abilities to provide a steady source of water to fight fires. The pumper would serve as the Village’s primary firefighting equipment until sometime in the early 1920’s with the eventual purchase of a gasoline-powered fire engine. The wooden fire engine is still owned by the Village today, has been refurbished by members of the Wheeling Fire Department, and is on display in the second floor lobby of Fire Station 24 (Headquarters).
As the community grew, so did the volunteer fire department and the need for updated fire prevention codes. On December 7, 1908, the Village adopted Ordinance 68 expanding its requirements for smoke stacks associated with factories and breweries, requiring that gasoline storage tanks be kept 25 feet away from any buildings, and limiting the possession of gun powder, dynamite, or any other explosive materials to 25 pounds per individual. The Fire Marshal was also authorized to issue fines of no less than $5.00 to no more than $25.00 per violation of the Village’s fire codes.
On April 3, 1933, the Village adopted Ordinance 154 to establish control over the construction of wooden buildings along its commercial corridor on Milwaukee Avenue and Dundee Road. This became the Village’s first steps towards establishing a community building code standard and came after several catastrophic fires had occurred throughout the community.
In 1954, areas outside of the Village of Wheeling not already incorporated into other regional communities were consolidated into the Wheeling Township Rural Fire Protection District in accordance with recently enacted state legislation. A 3 member board was appointed by Wheeling Township to levy and collect taxes, as well as contract for fire protection services. The Village of Wheeling entered into a contract with the Wheeling Township Rural Fire Protection District in the amount of $350.00/annually to provide fire protection to an unincorporated area that is currently comprised of southern Buffalo Grove, northern Arlington Heights, northern Prospect Heights, and more than half of Wheeling. Over the next 40 years, most of these areas would be absorbed by their respective communities and in 1995, the Wheeling Township Rural Fire Protection District was dissolved. A few remaining unincorporated areas are currently protected by the Prospect Heights Fire Protection District.
Dispatching of the fire department in 1954 consisted of a single 7-digit emergency telephone number that would ring in the homes and businesses of multiple volunteer firefighters at the same time. Whomever answered the emergency call would then call other members of the department to notify them of the emergency. Typically, the spouses of the volunteer firefighters served as the first “dispatchers” for the fire department and tracked who went on the call and completed the miscellaneous paperwork. As the Police Department grew, eventually a centralized emergency dispatch center staffed around the clock was set up in the police station that served both the fire department and the police department. Volunteer firefighters where later dispatched by tone activated radios (i.e. pagers) in their homes that there was an emergency in the community to respond to.
A dedicated fire station was constructed on Dundee Road, just west of Milwaukee Avenue in 1955. This modern fire station for its time consisted of 3 garages to house the department’s growing fleet of fire engines, offices, and a meeting room for the volunteer firefighters. The building was constructed using funds raised by the volunteer fire department and the Wheeling Chamber of Commerce through various community fund raising events. Eventually, a second floor was added on which became both village hall and the police station. The police department purchased the Village’s first ambulance and it was housed within this building, as well. Staffing of the ambulance was provided by whomever could arrive first and this could have been a combination of volunteer firefighters and/or police officers. Training consisted of basic first aid and the use of oxygen masks with patients being transported to Highland Park, Evanston, Elgin, or Chicago. Prior to the Village obtaining an ambulance, ambulance service was provided by the local funeral home or by transporting patients in the back of a police squad car. This building would serve needs of the community and the fire department until 1980 when it was closed and the fire department moved into the Village Hall Complex on Dundee Road. The old fire station would be torn down as part of the Milwaukee Avenue and Dundee Road redevelopment project.
To continue to attract new members to the fire department, starting in 1962, the Village began to pay $1.00 per member who attended an emergency call. In a typical year, a very active member might make $100.00 if they made most of the emergency calls. Members of the department became referred to as “Paid-On-Call Firefighters”.
In 1969, the Wheeling Fire Department obtained its first ladder truck in order to properly protect the community’s growing industrial parks and the increased development of multi-family dwellings. The vehicle was a Sutphen 85 foot ladder tower with a bucket on the end of the large extension ladder. Capable of safely reaching the top of a 6 story building, it was also able to pump 1,000 gallons of water per minute onto a fire. Originally painted “fire engine red”, the vehicle was later re-painted “lime-green” as the fire department’s vehicles were transitioned to “lime-green” in color for improved safety. Current research of the time had shown that the color “lime-green” was more visible in nighttime conditions than the color “red”. Wheeling made national news with its change to the new color and was held up as a model for many other fire departments across the nation. From 1970 until 1995, all of the fire department’s vehicles were painted “lime-green”. With advancements in enhanced emergency vehicle lighting, the addition of reflective striping and lettering on the vehicles, and the installation of traffic signal control devices, the fire department has since returned to an all “red” fleet of vehicles.
In 1969, Bernhardt Koeppen, who had been the Village’s volunteer/paid-on-call Fire Chief since 1955, became the fire department’s first full-time employee to keep up with the growing demands of the community. Eventually another full-time employee was added to maintain the department’s fleet of fire engines and to drive these vehicles to the emergencies. In 1972, the fire department began having around-the-clock full-time personnel on-duty and its slow transition to becoming a full-time fire department had begun. By 1990, the department was fully staffed with all full-time personnel with the retirement of the community’s last paid-on-call firefighter.
In 1972, Illinois Governor Ogilvie signed legislation creating the first paramedic system in the nation. Started by a number of individuals associated with Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, under the direction of Dr. Stanley Zydlo, 196 firefighters from throughout the region, including the Wheeling Fire Department, completed their new training as both Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) and Paramedics (EMT-P’s). At 08:00 am on December 1, 1972, the paramedic system, comprised of 6 communities (including Wheeling), went live with the honor of the first paramedic emergency run going to the Buffalo Grove Fire Department. Around the clock paramedic service provided by the fire department was now available throughout the community and continues to be a critical service today. New firefighters today need to complete almost 12 months of intensive hands-on and academic training before they are allowed to take their state and national paramedic certification examinations. Training does not end with obtaining these certifications. Paramedics must attend monthly continuing education and must complete a re-certification process every 4 years. Wheeling paramedics also obtain further advanced certifications in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), Basic Trauma Life Support (BTLS), and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) to further enhance their skills. All shift emergency response personnel for the Wheeling Fire Department are cross-trained as both firefighters and paramedics.
1978 saw the opening of a second Wheeling fire station at the intersection of Wheeling Road and Hintz Road, as well as the hiring of additional full-time personnel. This fire station is still in use today, but will be fully replaced with a new, modern fire station in 2020. The fire station was the result of substantial residential growth on the west and south sides of the Wisconsin Central Railroad (now the Canadian National Railroad) that run north and south through the middle of the community. With the opening of this fire station, there was now a fire station located on both sides of the railroad tracks.
Starting in the 1970’s, all fire departments in the United States began being independently evaluated by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). Based upon a uniform criteria, each fire department was given a score ranging from 10 being the worst to 1 being the best. Evaluations are re-done approximately every 8 to 10 years and based upon a fire department’s rating, it can have a positive or negative impact on property insurance paid by residents and businesses. For much of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Wheeling Fire Department had an ISO Class 6 rating; an average rating. Starting in the 1990’s, the Village made a concerted effort to improve its fire protection efforts. Upgrades were made to the fire department’s staffing and equipment, as well as the water main system. During this time, the Village’s building & fire codes were reinforced, as well. Slowly, the fire department’s ISO began to improve first to an ISO Class 4, eventually an ISO Class 3, and in 2017, the fire department’s rating was changed to an ISO Class 2. A Class 2 rating places the Wheeling Fire Department in the top 3½ % of all fire departments in the United States.
With increased specialized emergency dispatching needs associated with both the fire department and the police department, fire department dispatching was separated from the police department during the early 1990’s. Fire department dispatching is provided by the Regional Emergency Dispatching (RED) Center in Northbrook, Illinois. This agency exclusively handles fire and emergency medical dispatching for 14 municipalities and fire protection districts within the region; accounting for more than 125 square miles protected and more than 500,000 residents served. Annually, RED Center handles more than 52,000 emergency calls for service, of which Wheeling accounts for approximately 5,000. All of the dispatchers at RED Center are trained to provide pre-arrival emergency instructions to residents who are experiencing medical emergencies. In addition, RED Center also serves as the vital communication link in the event of a state-wide disaster.
Due to the ever increasing complexities associated with firefighting and the need for constant training of personnel, the Village of Wheeling combined with the Village of Buffalo Grove and the Long Grove Fire Protection District in 1992 to build a shared fire department training facility in Buffalo Grove. The facility contains a number of specialized props where actual live fire training exercises can be held in order to challenge personnel under a variety of controlled situations. Since its construction, the original group has been joined by the Linconshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District and the Deerfield-Bannockburn Fire Protection District. In 2020, a new classroom building will open on the site to enhance and expand its current capabilities.
In the late 2000’s, the Village underwent a series of facility upgrades, in order to meet the continued growing demands for municipal services within the community. In 2010, a new fire station was constructed on Milwaukee Avenue’s “Restaurant Row”. This new fire station also includes the fire department administrative offices, while the Fire Prevention Bureau was relocated to the new Village Hall. The existing administrative office spaces of the fire department on Dundee Road were then transferred over to the Police Department and the fire station portion of the building was reduced to a small area. Today, a single fire engine with 3 firefighter/paramedics per shift operate out of this fire station.
Today’s Wheeling Fire Department operates from 3 fire stations, each designated through a regional numbering system: Fire Station 24 (Headquarters), 499 S. Milwaukee Avenue, Fire Station 23, 780 S. Wheeling Road, and Fire Station 42, 1 Community Blvd. A minimum of 13 firefighter/paramedics are on-duty at all times. Shift personnel work for 24 hours and are then off duty for 48 hours. A total of 48 personnel are directly assigned to one of 3 shifts. Department administration and Fire Prevention Bureau personnel are comprised of 4 full-time personnel and 3 part-time personnel. The total fire department is comprised of 55 personnel. Annually, the fire department responds to approximately 4,800 calls for service of which approximately 70% are medically-related. Personnel are trained to provide a wide-variety of emergency services including but not limited to; firefighting, emergency medical/paramedic services, hazardous materials containment/mitigation, technical rescue, underwater rescue/recovery, and aircraft rescue & firefighting (ARFF) services for Chicago Executive Airport. The fire department continues to evolve with the needs of the community and stands ready to meet the challenges of the future.
WHEELING FIRE CHIEFS
1896 to Present
Christ Uetz 1896 - 1898
Henry Lips 1899 - 1904
John Behm 1905 - 1906
Charles Johnson 1906 - 1907
Henry Hipp 1908 - 1918
Albert Utpadel 1919 - 1921
Frank Forke 1922 - 1923
Otto Utpadel 1924 - 1925
Albert Utpadel 1926 - 1928
Carl Moeller 1929 - 1931
Walter Pieper 1932 - 1933
Earl Johnson 1946 - 1947
Edward Gieske 1947 - 1954
Bernhardt Koeppen 1955 - 1969 (Volunteer)
1969 - 1989 (Full-Time)