Also See: Historic Photos from the BHVFD
The Berwyn Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1919 and began operations with one hose reel and a hand-pulled soda acid tank. The Department’s somewhat limited equipment was housed at Trot and Owens Store near the old streetcar line and Berwyn Road.
From its inception and incorporation in 1919, and until 1922, the Department provided fire protection for Berwyn, Berwyn Heights and Branchville. However, due to delayed responses created by distance and the existing tracks bisecting the area, the citizens considered the possibility of locating a second fire station somewhere east of Berwyn.
In 1922, Albert Johnson, in conjunction with the Berwyn Improvement Association, donated a lot to the Department north of Berwyn on Branchville Road. In 1923, after much debate regarding where the apparatus should be kept, the Berwyn apparatus was moved to Berwyn Heights where it was housed in Buffington’s garage.
Since the membership was now split, two new departments were organized in 1924, the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company and the Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department. The Branchville Company kept the land and the Berwyn Heights Department kept the apparatus and the charter. Berwyn Heights was now designated Company 14 by the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fireman’s Association for it was the 14th company inducted into the association.
On May 27, 1929, the Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department filed new incorporation papers, listing 15 charter members. The charter members were H.T. Anderson, Raymond Anderson, H.M. Blundon, A.H. Cordes, F.C. Frost, M.C. Johnstone, James C. Loveless, Daniel J. MacDonald, William N. Mercer, Samuel H. Moyer, Charles H. Stein, E.J. Taylor, James E.P. Taylor, C.D. Walker, Edward Weaver.
Soon thereafter, the members purchased their first piece of motorized apparatus, a 1926Republic pumper, followed by a 1928 Chevrolet chemical truck. On December 30, 1930 the Department’s charter was officially approved and recorded at the county courthouse.
During the 1930’s the Department was a social center for the community and during the early 1940’s as with most departments, the level of service was heavily affected by World War II. Between 1940 and 1945, the active membership dwindled to just nine men. Protective equipment was in even shorter supply as the men shared two pair of boots and three running coats. On March 25, 1945, Chief Clinton Walker, while responding to a brush fire, suddenly felt sick. The engine stopped at his house, and he was helped inside, then the engine continued on the call. When they returned they found that Chief Walker had suffered a fatal heart attack.
On November 13, 1945, the rescue squad responded to an auto accident on Route 1 and while searching for victims, Jesse Lovejoy stepped onto a live electrical wire. Chief George Hudgins, acting without regard for his own safety, removed his running coat and used it to pull Jesse from the wire. Jesse was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. As a result of his actions, Chief Hudgins was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Honor for Heroism.
During the latter part of World War II, Washington D.C. became an active area for military pilot training. There were at least four military installations operating aircraft within twenty miles of Berwyn Heights. The increasing demand on area fire departments for special aircraft rescues resulted in the formation of many special rescue units within Prince George’s County.
Sometime in 1945, Berwyn Heights formed the first “Heavy Duty” Rescue Squad in the County specially equipped for extrication of student pilots as well as victims of automobile accidents. Placed in service that year was the Department’s first rescue vehicle –a 1937 One-Quarter-Ton GMC Panel Truck. To the best of the Department’s knowledge, this was one of the first Heavy Duty Squads on the East Coast.
When Berwyn Heights organized the Rescue Squad, they were placed under the County Rescue Squad Association and designated as Rescue Squad 8. All other Rescue Squads in the County were actually ambulances and although the Berwyn Heights concept of a Rescue Squad was not such, the unit was still part of the County’s Rescue Squad/Ambulance fleet. The Department would not operate an ambulance until much later.
By the late 1950’s, a few departments were operating Heavy Duty Rescue Squads and there was a need to designate them separately from the units that were used for transporting sick and injured persons to the hospital. Departments with Heavy Duty Squads would now refer to the unit as “Rescue Squad,” followed by their company number. Those units previously referred to as Rescue Squads would now be called Ambulances. The Department operated several rescue vehicles in the early years including a 1950 GMC One Ton Panel Truck, followed by a 1956 International provided by the Civil Defense.
1953 marked the opening of a new firehouse (now the Town Community Center at Berwyn Road and 57th Avenue) and the old firehouse that stood next door was demolished. The old firehouse had served the Town since 1924. 1953 also marked the year that the Department received their first Class-A pumper, a 1953 GMC with a 750 GPM pump.
Tragedy struck again on July 12, 1956 when John Leyh was returning from an auto accident in his own vehicle (a common practice at the time) and lost control, striking a tree in Beltsville. The death of John Leyh resulted in the Department prohibiting the use of personal vehicles for emergency calls.
With the population growth of the Berwyn Heights and Greenbelt communities, so grew the demand for the Department’s services. Because of the additional calls for services and the unavailability of volunteers during the day, paid firefighters were hired in 1965. As time progressed, more personnel were added to the paid force. These men would eventually become absorbed into the County Fire Department which had yet to be organized.
In the early 1960’s Prince George’s County hired Yeager and Associates to conduct a study of fire protection throughout the county and to make recommendations as to how the departments could provide better protection. In regard to Berwyn Heights, the Yeager Report suggested that a ladder truck be added to the station, the engine company be eliminated, and the Rescue Squad should remain in service. The elimination of the engine company was justified because of surrounding firehouses, including those in Branchville and Greenbelt, could provide adequate engine coverage while Berwyn Heights could provide the ladder company service.
In addition, the Yeager Report also suggested the firehouse be relocated to better serve the new Springhill Lake apartment complex that was under construction and the various businesses along Greenbelt Road. The relationship with the Town began to suffer over the issues because the Town did not want the firehouse to move from the site where it had originally been organized. Issues regarding the elimination of the engine company created additional discussion and debate.
Potential locations for the new “station,” as people would begin to refer to the new firehouse, were Greenbelt Road and 58th Avenue or Greenbelt Road and Kenilworth Avenue. Local politicians and Townspeople continued to debate the location of the new station. It was eventually located where it presently resides, at 60th Avenue and Seminole Street, and construction was completed in July of 1968.
1968 was a busy year for the Department. Since 1924 the Department that sits less than ten miles from Washington, D.C. had only been into the city for emergency purposes on two occasions. The first was during the 1930’s for a large warehouse fire at the Hahn shoe factory. The second was in the 1940’s during a plane crash at National Airport. In April 1968, during racial tension and rioting, Engine 143 was sent into the District of Columbia to provide support to the overburdened D.C. Fire Department. It wasn’t long after arriving in the city that Engine 143, and its’ crew of seven men, were in the thick of violence and mayhem in the Nation’s Capital. They remained there for over eight hours fighting some of the most spectacular fires in the city’s history.
Several weeks later, the Rescue Squad was involved in a serious automobile accident on Cherry Hill Road while responding to a house fire in Beltsville. The accident resulted in the death of a civilian and several of the crew members were injured. The Rescue Squad itself was damaged beyond repair.
On January 1, 1969 the Engine Company was officially placed out of service and the new Truck Company was placed in service with a 1968 Maxim Tractor-Drawn 100 Foot Aerial Ladder. A new Rescue Squad, a 1968 GMC-Bruco was also received that year.
The early 1970’s was a time for major change, not just for Berwyn Heights, but for every fire department in Prince George’s County. The citizens of the county voted for a charter form of government which had a direct impact on the funding provided to the individual fire departments and caused the implementation of a County Fire Department. The management of the County Fire Department would be under the direction of one person appointed to the position of Fire Chief by the County Executive (a new position in itself). This resulted in many volunteer fire departments disagreeing with the county government and legal action of various sorts, many of which are still being debated today.
Emergency medical service has always been provided to the community by the Department. Yet as late as the 1970’s Berwyn Heights had yet to offer an ambulance service, even though most every other station in the county had an ambulance. Statistics did not show the outstanding need for an ambulance in Berwyn Heights, at least not in comparison to the number of calls ambulances responded to in most other communities. At the time, Branchville and Greenbelt fire stations (each of which operated two ambulances of their own) provided ambulance service to the Berwyn Heights community. However, the Department felt it was in the best interest of the community to provide its own ambulance service.
An ambulance was purchased and placed in service in 1975. This new service to the community proved to be a wise decision. Today it is depended on to serve the citizens of Berwyn Heights and it also serves to augment the Branchville and Greenbelt ambulances. With the incorporation of the new ambulance was a new form of membership in the Department known as “Ambulance Technician.”
In 1976 the Department purchased a smaller size engine from the Chevy Chase Fire Department and placed it in service. The unit was to supplement the Truck and Squad, handle smaller fires in the community, and serve as a training vehicle. This unit would eventually be known as Mini-Pumper 14.
Membership in the mid-1970’s was at a low point and for a time there was a need for a paid “shift-man” to stay at the station 24 hours a day to ensure that a driver would be available. The shift-man was eventually returned to the county when membership levels returned to a point that the volunteers were able to provide adequate manning.
During the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s membership grew partly as a result of the University of Maryland students that joined the Department. This was due to the students’ interest to experience the busy atmosphere of the Department, gain knowledge of Truck and Squad operations, and live in the fire station free of charge while attending college. It was during this period that the Department gained peculiar popularity and notoriety among out-of-state volunteers who wanted to become a part of Berwyn Heights and the Prince George’s County Fire Service.
During the next several years “HazMat 14″ was the busiest response team in the county. However, due to extenuating circumstances, the unit was placed out of service in 1990 and responsibilities were shifted to the College Park Fire Department.
In 1982, the Department organized a Hazardous Materials Response Team and “HazMat 14″ was placed in service to serve the needs of the ever-changing community and environment in which we live. The County Fire Department also recognized the need for such a service and implemented similar programs throughout the county.
In 1988 tragedy struck the Department for the fourth time in its history. On January 29, Deputy Chief Jim Yvorra was investigating an automobile accident on the Capital Beltway near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway when he was struck by a passing motorist. His injuries required that he be flown by helicopter to Baltimore for medical treatment by a specially trained trauma team. But his injuries proved too severe and he was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at the hospital.
The 1990’s found the Department reflecting upon a proud past and preparing for a dynamic future. The men and women of the Department continued to make success possible by creating value for the public through the services they provide. In an effort to secure long-term financial strength to meet the challenges of the future and continue to serve the public in innovative ways, the Department enhanced their fundraising efforts by continuing annual fund drives in the community, and other creative programs such as Casino Night fundraising.
In 1990 the twenty-two-year-old Rescue Squad was replaced, and in 1992 the twenty-four-year-old Ladder Truck and the County-owned Mini-Pumper and Ambulance were also replaced. The Department also replaced the Rescue Boat that had been in service since 1945. Through the success of the fundraising, especially the Casino Nights, the Department was able to completely renew the apparatus fleet consisting of Pemfab/Ranger Rescue Squad, a Pemfab/LTI Tractor Drawn 106’ Aerial Ladder, a Pemfab/Saulsbury Mini-Pumper (also the designated back up Rescue Squad), a Ford/Horton Ambulance, and a Zodiac rescue boat.
During these years the Department also had extremely high membership numbers and changed to accepting new members only on a quarterly basis. The bunkroom was full and had a waiting list, and the Department consistently provided 2 crews with fully staffed apparatus of 6 or more firefighters each. The twenty-four-year-old firehouse also underwent a change in 1992 when construction started an addition and major renovation. With the expansion to the station, the need for additional space to store the apparatus, as well as the need to improve the sleeping, living, and administrative requirements of the Department at the time were addressed.
In 1999, the Pemfab/Ranger Rescue Squad became the reserve Rescue Squad with the arrival of a new Seagrave/Saulsbury Rescue Squad. This new purchase also triggered the sale of the Mini-Pumper in 2000 and the elimination of any pumper type apparatus at the BHVFD, thereby becoming the “No Hose Nation” which is a current unofficial Department slogan. In 2002, the Seagrave/Saulsbury Rescue Squad was involved in a rollover crash at the intersection of Kenilworth Ave and Good Luck Rd while responding to an entrapment call, injuring several firefighters and causing extensive damage to the Squad. As a result of the crash, the 1990 Pemfab/Ranger was returned to frontline service and earned her nickname as the Memphis Belle in honor of the World War II B-17 that was chronicled completing 25 missions in the European Theater. The Department leadership subsequently did a hard assessment of the Seagrave/Saulsbury Squad and chose to spec out a whole new Rescue Squad rather than repair the existing apparatus, choosing to make several adjustments and upgrades including going with a tandem axle chassis to solve weight problems that had been encountered due to the large amounts of specialty equipment that the BHVFD carries. In 2004, an all-new Seagrave/Marion Rescue Squad was added to the fleet.
Due to the decreased revenue from the elimination of the casino nights in the 1990’s, the Department purchased 2 used Freightliner/Medic Master ambulances in 2007 and began ambulance billing along with a number of other companies in the County in the late 2000’s. As a strategic fiscal roadmap was developed, future apparatus replacement was a major portion of the discussion and a full rehab including a new tractor for the LTI was under consideration. Due to projected revenue and the current fiscal health of the Department, BHVFD chose to replace rather than repair the ladder truck and in 2010 took delivery of a new Seagrave Tractor Drawn 100 Foot Aerial Ladder to replace the 18-year-old Pemfab/LTI.
As Berwyn Heights continued to invest itself in advanced specialized training, the Department became a Technical Rescue Company in 2010. This new specialty assignment includes Confined Space, High Angle, Trench, Swift Water, and Collapse Rescue Specialties. Members complete advanced training in these areas and are dispatched as necessary to these technical rescue calls. As a result of BHVFD’s rescue capabilities, we have been instrumental in numerous advanced operations including several high-profile roller coaster rescues at Six Flags America that received national attention.
BHVFD continues to update the apparatus fleet and in 2015 a new state of the art Ford/Demers ambulance was purchased to become the primary ambulance for the Company after one of the Freightliner ambulances was damaged in an accident. We have also replaced 2 of our 3 Chief’s buggies since 2015 and are currently making plans for the purchase of a new rescue squad.
The most significant element of BHVFD’s continued success is the membership. In 2014, Berwyn Heights was awarded a FEMA SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) Grant, allowing the Company to provide tuition reimbursement, training, funds for recruitment, membership incentives, and minor station renovations. This grant has allowed the Company to continue to recruit and retain high numbers of motivated individuals who are dedicated to the company mission and core values.
Today the Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department remains ready to provide quality service to the citizens and the community of the future.