On February 4, 1869 the City of Cedar Rapids began organizing its first volunteer fire department. On March 1, 1869 the city's first Silsby Steamer Engine and 500 feet of hose arrived at a cost of $6,000. By March 11, 1869 the fire department became fully organized with J.J. Snouffer as the foreman.
In 1882 the Bohemian-American Hose Company was formed. (The original flag is located in the fire museum at Central Fire Station.) The firehouse was located in the rear of the C.S.P.S. Hall at 11th Avenue & 3rd Street SE.
The first paid fire chief was L.M. Ayers, who served from 1893 to 1897. The fire equipment of that day was 9 two-wheeled carts, 1 four-wheeled cart, 2 large hook and ladder trucks, and 1 supply wagon. On June 23, 1894, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department became a paid department. Cedar Rapids would now be covered by a unified fire department as opposed to a collection of individual volunteer companies. These companies would compete with each other in order to get to the fire first and put it out. To this day, Cedar Rapids uses its own special thread style on fire hoses, as back in the day this would prevent other volunteer companies to be able to connect to the hydrants. The new paid fire department meant 248 men, 11 companies and 14 pieces of apparatus was taken from the service of the city, thus ending a very colorful 25 years of volunteer firefighting in Cedar Rapids.
The first Central Fire Station was located on 2nd Street East near the Granby Building. Earliest records indicate that the Central Fire Station began being used on June 23, 1894 when the Fire Department became a paid department. In 1899 land was acquired and a new Central Fire Station was constructed in the vicinity of B Avenue and 3rd Street SE (214 3rd Street NE).
The first motorized fire apparatus was stationed at new station 6 on May 8, 1912. Six years later the entire Cedar Rapids fleet would be motorized.
Then a new Central Fire Station was opened on June 20, 1917 and would serve the city until December 1985, when Central Fire Station was relocated to 222 3rd Street NW. The 222 3rd Street NW location would be used until the Flood of 2008. A new Central Fire Station was built at 713 1st Avenue SE and opened in October 2013.
The Cedar Rapids Fire Department joined the International Association of Firefighter Union on February 28, 1918. It would be listed as City Firefighters Number 11, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
On May 22, 1919, the Douglas Starch Works exploded, taking 43 lives and caused a $2 1/2 million loss. The disaster was twice as bad as the American Cereal Mill fire of 1905. The explosion occurred at about 6:30 p.m. There were 109 men in the plant at the time of the explosion. The pillar of dust and flames shot skyward about 5000 feet and the explosion was felt 30 miles away. Doors were blown open and windows shattered at the Cedar Rapids Country Club three and one-half miles away. Fire trucks were everywhere. A crowd had gathered and firemen told them if they really wanted to help they should go to their homes and bring back anything that could be used as a stretcher, such as old boards or the front door from their homes. The victims were carried to the building across the street from the plant where the Red Cross had set up an emergency Hospital. Also, treated there were men, woman and children who lived nearby. Two firemen were hospitalized; Fireman C. Craft was injured by a brick hurled by a blast from one of the minor explosions and Fireman H. Hall was overcome by smoke inhalation. Of the 43 men who lost their lives, 10 bodies were never found, 10 bodies were partially found and buried in a common grave in Linwood Cemetery. There is a monument inscribed "Erected In Memory of Employees of Douglas Company Who Lost Their Lives - May 22, 1919" at the burial site.
Fire Station 3 at 1424 B Ave NE opened on October 17, 1925 and was sold in 2013 to Coe College to become residential housing. Thirty-two years later to the day, Stations 5 and 6 (Wilson Avenue & 6th Street SW and 2416 Mt. Vernon Road SW respectively) opened.
The Fire Department opened a new airport fire station in 1964 to house an engine and a crash rescue truck. It would be occupied by the Cedar Rapids Fire Department until 1976 when it was turned over to the airport fire safety team and was no longer operated by the Cedar Rapids department.
One of the biggest and most costly fires in the history of the city occurred on May 22, 1964. The fire burned out of control at the Tip Top Distributing Company, 1211 9th Street SW. The alarm was sounded at 1:45 p.m. The first to arrive was Chief Hunter who happened to be driving in the area at the time. The entire building was doomed by the time that the department was alerted. The men had no chance to save the building. Chief Hunter termed the blaze under control at 2:45 p.m.- an hour after it had been discovered. The chief called in 90 percent of the 130 man force. At times, 9 trucks were pumping water at the scene. The new snorkel proved itself very helpful. Some old pumper trucks that had long been removed from active duty were brought to the scene of the fire. Keeping the pumping operation going was expensive. Six hundred and fifty gallons of gasoline were used just to keep the pumps going. An oil company placed a transport rig in the area, and the pumps guzzled through the night. Once started, the blaze consumed the large warehouse building with startling speed. No firemen were actually sent into the Tip Top building. "I didn't dare send any of the men into the inferno," said Hunter. Nearby buildings had to be soaked down with water to keep the burning debris from setting them on fire. The fire swept heavy black smoke over the city. The bits of burned embers that were carried aloft came as far as the roof of City Hall some distance away and clear over to the Public Library Building. During the height of the fire, area residents used lawn hoses to wet their lawns and houses. Fire crews worked into the night to contain the hot spots. The building had no sprinkler system. The loss was estimated at $3 million. Chief Hunter believed that the loss could have been limited to about $100 if a sprinkler system had been in the building.
Cedar Rapids saw its first black firefighter hired on August 3, 1974.
Starting in 1975, new fire trucks were painted yellow instead of the traditional red. Many departments across the country flirted with this idea as it was said that they are more visible than red. Cedar Rapids would ultimately switch back to red trucks in the early 1990’s.
On May 20, 1976, a river rescue training operations ended in tragedy. The exercise was being conducted above the roller dam south of the city on the Cedar River along Old River Road. A safety rope apparently came loose and the men’s boat went over the dam backwards. Rover Simon and Melvin Goebel were drowned, thrown from the boat into the turbulent water below the dam. Training Captain Lannie Hatton became entangled in the rope and managed to stay with the boat. He maneuvered it to the south side of the river. He was helped to shore with the help of bystanders. The two men disappeared in the water almost immediately and no aid was possible. These were the first deaths in the line of duty of the Cedar Rapids firefighters in about 40 years. This brought the number of men who died while on duty to six, one of which was a volunteer who died in 1890.
Beginning in 1977, all firefighters would be trained in CPR and advanced first aid. They would begin responding to medical calls as they can respond anywhere in the city in less than 4 minutes.
Fire broke out on July 15, 1985 in the old City sewage treatment plant at A Street SW. The sparks from a cutting torch ignited the toxic material that lined the dome. Hydrochloric gas was produced because of the water used to extinguish the flames. Ten thousand people were forced to evacuate their homes, north of Highway 30 east and as far west as Wilson School at J street SW. The wind carried the gas parts of the City, causing evacuations. Aerial 2 was the first company in and got set up. Water was being applied be a little after 4 p.m. In approximately four hours, 250,000 gallons of water was drawn from the Cedar River by Engine 2. An estimated 200 million gallons of water were pumped on the fire. The final action taken to put the fire out was to use bulldozers and push dirt over the smoldering remains at the fire site.
The first two female firefighters were hired on April 21, 1986.
The Windsor Apartments Fire occurred on May 28, 1992. An entire building in the complex burned to the ground as there was a delay in notifying the fire department as the tenant tried to extinguish the fire. It was caused by a propane grill on the deck and this lead to new regulations prohibiting any grill being used on the deck of a residence.