A Look Back…
In 1901, the City of Fort Myers established a fire department after a few devastating fires that occurred within a short time frame. Hard to believe that Fort Myers Beach did not organize a fire department until nearly 50 years later in 1949. When a fire did occur, the average response time from the Fort Myers Fire Department was 20 minutes at best.
Prior to the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department (today’s Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District), fighting fires was a dangerous challenge. Fires were only combated with residents using their garden hoses or using palmetto fronds to fan out the flames. In some instances a bucket brigade was formed. One resident, Emily Forster stated in Jean S. Gottlieb’s book “Coconuts and Coquinas: Island Life on Fort Myers Beach 1920-1970” that prior to 1949, “when a house caught fire, it burned.”
She recalled that the largest fire at that time was “Mrs. Allison’s houseboat that she lived in. That was a huge boat that had been pulled up on land. That thing started burning and it just burned down. That burned on one of the coldest night we had. . .and that was a tremendous fire. It was 1947.”
Most fires in the earlier years on the beach were empty grass lots and occasionally a structure.
Fire Department Formed
Records indicate that Fort Myers Beach Fire Department was formed in 1949, with Earl “Pop” Howie being elected as the Fire Chief with Travis Cowart as First Captain. The other volunteers were Jeff Brame (Captain), Tommy Jennings, Harry Quigg, Bruce Campbell, and Col. ‘Brian. To be more precise, according to the Fort Myers Beach Fire website, “On Wednesday, June 22, 1949 at 7:30 p.m. at ‘Jenk’s Bar’ the Beach Volunteer Fire Department was born under the auspices of the Beach Improvement Association, Incorporated.”
A fundraiser was set up to secure a “small two wheel tree spray pump, tank and trailer, which was pulled by a borrowed jeep.” The equipment was housed at the Red Coconut Trailer Park. In 1950 they got a Navy surplus fire truck with a pump and a hose. The truck held 550 gallons and was in use till 1964 when it was sold to the Lehigh Acres Volunteer Fire Department. With no fire hydrants on the island, the volunteers pumped water from canals and at times water from the gulf if it was beachfront property they were trying to save. Also in 1950 they incorporated as the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District, Inc.
In late 1951, Donald and Ora Zimmer donated land for a fire station with the stipulation that “the described property be maintained as a main and operating fire and engine house” or the land would revert back to the Zimmers or their heirs.
In 1962, a volunteer Rescue Squad unit was added to the fire department and made part of the tax district in 1963. According to “A Short History of Fort Myers Beach: Estero and San Carlos Islands Florida” by Barrett and Adelaide Brown, “A specially designed panel truck [was] used, splendidly equipped for first aid in case of accidents or illness.” The Rescue Squad had excellent response time and it was reported that they prevented some minor accidents from turning into a disaster.
Sadly in 1962, the fire department lost their father figure and first chief, Earl “Pop” Howie.
In the 1970s, the Beach Bulletin ran a column by Wilf Etches called ‘Fire Hall Gossip.’ Although it had been 20 years since the formation of the department, Etches spent his time visiting the firemen at the station and writing about his time there.
In one piece he wrote:
“Fire halls are great places to meet the nicest people and the best place to support this theory is the Fort Myers Beach Fire and Rescue Hall. . .you get a feeling of security as soon as you enter and you know right away it is just about the most efficient one you’ve every stepped into. The place always has an air of peace and quiet; the Rescue units and the great fire trucks just seem to be sleeping there – perhaps dreaming of events that they have taken part in at some time in their history.”
It’s a safe bet the firemen of 1949 and the 1970s are the same as today with a passion to save lives and educate people about the dangers of fire.
To sum up the changes and know just how far the department has progressed over the years, here’s a wrap up from their website. “Technical standards have changed in that 45-year span since 22 men sat around a table, addressing the fire protection needs of the Beach. Words like smoke detector, alarm systems and response distances were not part of their vocabulary but they understood one thing – Fire Kills.”
Southwest Florida historian T. M. Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach. His latest book, “A Peek into the Past: A Collection of Lee County Historical Articles” is available at Amazon.