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Smithfield’s First Paid Firemen

   This article was originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, January, 2017.

 

Smithfield’s First Paid Firemen

Began 50 Years Ago This Month

 

By Jim Ignasher

 

Chief Walter Passano
One of the first paid fire fighters of the S.F.D.

     The Smithfield Fire department can trace its origins to the 1870s with the acquisition of its first fire engine, dubbed “The Water Witch” that was purchased from the city of Pawtucket.  For nearly one-hundred years afterwards, fire stations in town were manned by volunteers, but that all changed in 1966 when it was decided that Smithfield should begin the process of transitioning to a semi-paid fire department.

     The initial plan called for nine firemen; a chief, two lieutenants, and six privates, to man the Georgiaville and Greenville stations from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The department would still be augmented by volunteers, also known as “call-men”.          

   Reasons for the move included changing demographics. While there was no shortage of volunteers during the evening and overnight hours, during the day many volunteers now worked outside of town, compared to earlier times when people tended to work close to home. Department turnout reports for 1966 seemed to support this premise with 15 to 20 volunteers responding to emergencies during the daytime, compared to nearly twice as many on nights and weekends.  

     For those unaware, when an emergency was reported to the fire department in 1966, volunteer firemen were “called” by the activation of the large “air-raid” sirens mounted on the roofs of the Greenville and Georgiaville stations. These sirens were extremely loud, and could be heard from a great distance. Volunteers would go to their stations and then respond with apparatus as needed. One can see how this could cause a delay in response time, and it was felt that having paid men at the stations would help alleviate this problem.    

Lieut. Fred Andrews – 1984
One of the first paid firefighters of the S.F.D.

     The first paid member of the department was Chief Norman R. Segee, who was appointed November 28, 1966. Eight more firemen were appointed on December 5, and on January 1, 1967, it was officially announced that Smithfield now had a semi-paid fire department. It was also reported that three of Greenville’s firemen, Ernest Hawkins, Michael Fusco, and George Jaswell, would voluntarily sleep in the Greenville station at night to provide coverage.

     Five of the paid firemen were assigned to the Greenville station while the other four worked at the Georgiaville station. Those assigned to Greenville included Chief Segee, Lt. Walter Segee, Pvt. Raymond Young, Pvt. Paul Ganz, and Pvt. Raymond White, Jr. The Georgiaville station came under the command of Lieutenant Milton Corey, who oversaw Privates Fred Andrews, Ronald Paterson, and Walter Passano.

     Chief Segee joined the Greenville Volunteer Fire Department in 1941 while still a teenager. This was not uncommon for the time especially during World War II when older volunteers were leaving to join the military. When Segee turned 18 in 1943, he left to serve in the navy, but re-joined the department after the war, serving as a lieutenant from 1947 to 1952, when he was elected one of the state’s youngest fire chiefs.    

     As a lieutenant, Segee was instrumental in organizing the town’s first rescue squad, and chaired a committee to install the department’s first two-way radio system, which was funded through the proceeds from Greenville’s first firemen’s carnival held at Waterman’s Lake in 1951. Chief Segee retired in 1984.

     All of the new appointees had been long-time volunteers. Their ages ranged from 28 to 53, and most were military veterans.

     Lt. Walter Segee had been a volunteer for 27 years, and prior to his appointment had been serving as the “day man” at the Greenville station while working third shift at the former Greenville Finishing mill on Putnam Pike.

   Lt. Corey was born and raised in Georgiaville, and had served with the Georgiaville Fire Company for 25 years, five of which he’d served as Chief. Lt. Corey retired as the Smithfield Fire Department’s Deputy Chief in 1984, after serving the town for nearly 44 years.

     Private Andrews was a lifelong resident of Smithfield who owned the former Andrews Farm located where Routes 104 and 295 intersect today.

     At 28, Private Walter Passano was the youngest of the nine appointees. He’d served six years as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force, and had been a volunteer fireman in Georgiaville for 12 years. Private Passano eventually rose to the rank of Chief in the department.

     Private Young, 39, of Spragueville had been a volunteer since he was 15.

     Private White had moved to Smithfield from Philadelphia when he was 7-years-old, and had formerly worked for the Smithfield Highway Department.

     Private Ganz had been a volunteer fireman in Cranston, where both his father and grandfather had served as Chief of the Oaklawn Fire Department. After moving to Smithfield with his family in the late 1950s, he began volunteering in Greenville.

     Private Ronald Paterson had been a volunteer with Georgiaville for the pervious 27 years, and he continued to serve with the fire department for many years afterwards.  

     On January 23, 1967, about three weeks after the new semi-paid department was in place, the crew assigned to the Greenville station was called out for an unusual ice rescue. Apparently two dogs, a beagle and a German shepherd, had been playing on some ice when the shepherd fell through and found himself struggling for his life. Meanwhile the beagle ran for help, and went to a local business where his frantic barking and clawing at the door aroused attention. The employee who investigated the noise quickly sized up the situation and called the fire department.

     Firemen responded with a small boat and pulled the dog to safety. Once in the boat he shook the icy water from his fur dousing his rescuers, but nobody seemed to mind. Once back on shore he was draped with a blanket and given warm milk.

     As time went on, the number of paid fire fighters in Smithfield continued to grow as the department continued its transition from volunteer to paid. Today there are fifty-three sworn firefighters on the Smithfield Fire department.

 

Three New Recruits Join Fire Dept.

     This article was originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine in July, 2017.

Three New Recruits Begin Their Career

With The Smithfield Fire Department

 

By Jim Ignasher

Photo By Capt. Derek Keene, S.F.D.

    June 5, 2017, was a milestone in the lives the Smithfield Fire Department’s newest recruits, for it marked their first day on the job, but they won’t be fighting fires or answering rescue calls just yet. There’s a rigorous training program to complete first.  

     The world of fire fighting has evolved over the years, and the training and preparation these rookies will receive will in some ways be very different than those who’ve come before them. For starters, they will be attending the newly established Rhode Island Fire Academy located in Exeter as members of Class 002. The academy’s very first class graduated a few weeks ago, and these new recruits will be students in the second.

     “It’s been a long time coming.” said Captain Derek Keene, Director of Training for the Smithfield Fire Department, referring to a time not long ago when there was no statewide fire academy. What many may not be aware of is that although police officers must graduate from the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy to be certified, such was not the case, until recently, for municipal firefighters. Before the establishment of the fire academy, each fire department conducted its own individual training program.

     At the eight week academy the recruits will receive intensive training in all aspects of fire fighting, including dealing with hazardous materials incidents, mass casualty incidents, and even terrorism. When they return to the department after graduation they will receive further on the job training which will include assignments in various divisions of the department from rescue and engine companies to administrative and fire prevention duties in order to give them first hand knowledge of how each division operates and works in conjunction with the others. Even after successfully finishing these rotations, they will still have to complete a one year probationary period before being appointed as permanent members to the department.    

     The new recruits are Eric J. Barrows, 30, a Paramedic from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Mark T. Euell, 22, of Warwick, an Emergency Medical Technician with experience on the Charlestown R.I. rescue, and Thomas W. Rotondo III, 30, of Smithfield, also a certified EMT.   Each is looking forward to dedicating themselves to serving the people of Smithfield.

     I had the honor of meeting these men on their first day at Fire Headquarters in Greenville. I was invited into the classroom by Captain Keene, and when I entered they immediately stood at attention. I noted that each was well groomed, and wearing a suit and tie. This, I was told, was all part of their orientation to the first department. If a ranking firefighter of the department had entered the room they would have done the same, but saluted as well.      

     The three men were selected from a pool of sixty applicants, and had to pass a rigorous hiring process which included written exams, background investigations, swimming and physical agility tests, oral interviews, medical and psychological testing.

     Their first day on the job was more of an orientation to the Smithfield Fire Department’s way of doing things. Their day officially began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and went on to include instruction in rules and regulations, department policies, and filling out a certain amount of paperwork.

     And there was unannounced “testing” as well. For example, Captain Keene explained how each had been told to park across the street from Headquarters before reporting to the front door of the fire station. (This is the door used by the public. They will have to earn the right to enter from the rear parking lot as the permanent firemen do.) Captain Keene observed as the recruits exited their vehicles and walked as a group to the corner of Smith Avenue and Putnam Pike and crossed at the light, instead of “jaywalking” across Rt. 44. When they arrived at the front door Captain Keene informed then, “You’ve just passed your first test!” There will, of course, be others, so the recruits will have to stay sharp.

     One important trait that Captain Keene wants to instill in all new hires is teamwork. A fire department eats, works, and sleeps together, and must be able to work as a team in an emergency situation. All 58 sworn members of the department have to know they can depend on each other.  

     Speaking of meals, I’m told it’s incumbent of these new recruits, who lack any seniority, to brush up on their food preparation skills, for they will be doing some of the cooking no matter what shift they’re assigned to.      

     Fire departments are organizations that value history and tradition, which is why new members are given an historical overview of the department’s origins and those who came before them. One item of discussion was Smithfield’s first fire engine, the infamous “Water Witch”; a 19th century horse-drawn pumper that required a team of a dozen or more strong and energetic men to operate. Such a piece would only be seen in a museum today, but it illustrates to the recruits how fire fighting technology has changed. Other items of interest include 20th century photos of vintage Smithfield fire engines, realizing of course, that there will come a time when today’s modern fire engines will look just as obsolete to future Smithfield fire fighters yet unborn.  

     Sadly, one segment of the department’s history emphasizes the dangers of the job, and points out that four of Smithfield’s fire fighters, Raymond W. Segee, Robert D. Brown, Eugene E. Dorgan, and Leo Kennedy Sr., lost their lives in the line of duty.

      We at the Smithfield Times wish these new members long, successful, and safe careers. Perhaps there is a future chief among them. Time will tell.                         

Smithfield Fire Log – 1800’s

By Jim Ignasher

The following are but a few fires, accidents, and other calls that Smithfield firefighters have responded to throughout the years.  This compilation is by no means complete.  

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New York Times, August 11, 1854

One of the earliest documented fires in Smithfield is this 1854 New York Times snippet reporting the destruction of Applebee Smith’s mill which is believed to have been located near the present-day intersection of Pleasant View Avenue and Indian Run Trail.  At the time of this fire, there was no organized fire department.

 

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Woonsocket Patriot, June 24, 1870

It was after this fire that it was decided better fire protection than bucket brigades was needed for Greenville, and the town’s first fire engine, The Water Witch was purchased from Pawtucket.    

 

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The Woonsocket Patriot, June 28, 1872, pg.1

These news snippets appeared together in The Woonsocket Patriot, September 6, 1872, page 1.  It is likely the Water Witch of Greenville saw action at one or both of these fires. 

 

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The Woonsocket Patriot, December 22, 1876

 

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The Woonsocket Patriot, December 27, 1876

 

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The Woonsocket Patriot, November 2, 1877, pg. 1

 

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(Woonsocket) Evening Call, July 29, 1897, page 3. 

 

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(Woonsocket) Evening Reporter, October 28, 1897, page 1.

 

In 1897, there was no organized fire protection in Georgiaville.

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