OPINION: A century ago, city fire alarm had bugs to work out

Before the first motorized trucks appeared in the 1920s, teams of fire horses raced through the streets of Sarnia to reach the blaze. Photo Credit: Lambton County Archives: 19JA-J

 

It was a public relations disaster for embarrassed city fathers.

On December 11, 1918 an insurance underwriter arrived from Toronto to witness a demonstration of the city’s new fire alarm system. For the occasion, Mayor James Crawford assembled some city aldermen at an alarm box located beside the former Vendome Hotel, at Front and Cromwell streets.

When everything was ready, the inspector broke the glass on the alarm box and the mayor ceremoniously pulled the handle. All waited for the rush of the Sarnia Fire Department to arrive.

Nothing happened.

After a considerable wait, the group moved to a second alarm box nearby and tried again. Minutes ticked by. The group grew agitated. The city fathers were embarrassed.

The alarm was pulled a third time. More time passed and still no sign of firemen rushing around the corner.

Alderman MacAdams excused himself and went into the Vendome to find a telephone. He placed an angry call to the fire station, and when someone answered, sternly ordered the firemen to the Vendome. MacAdams returned to the restless dignitaries and waited again.

A few minutes later, a clerk from the Vendome hurried outside. He told MacAdams someone at the firehall was on the phone and wanted to speak to him. The firemen had thought the earlier call might be a hoax and were calling back to confirm.

MacAdams, almost beside himself with frustration, assured the caller it wasn’t.

At the George Street firehall, the firemen rushed to get their gear ready. But as they raced out onto George Street a harness on the rig broke, and in the rush to repair it the team failed to load aboard all its equipment.

Finally, the fire wagon arrived at the Vendome: two horses, two men, a broken set of harnesses and a less than a full complement of firefighting equipment.

As a test of the department’s readiness the event was a disaster. Fortunately, the temperature that day wasn’t too cold or the wait might have been even more insufferable for civic leaders.

For Mayor James Crawford, who had begun his working life at age 12 as a fireman for the Grand Trunk Railway, the test of the new system was a failure.

Fortunately, though, a subsequent test of the fire hydrants showed improvement over previous inspections, so the afternoon wasn’t a total loss.