The circumstances leading to the formation of the Apopka Volunteer Fire Department are not known. The first records available date back to the year 1912. Records show that the department utilized a hand drawn hose cart which included two 40 gallon water tanks, 100 feet of 3/4" rubber hose, a hydrant wrench, an axe, and some other small tools. The water tanks were pressurized by a soda-acid charge tank, normally riding in an upright position inside the tops of each water tank. When the firefighters arrived at the fire scene, they would turn the tanks upside down, allowing the chemical reaction to occur. This, in turn, caused the tank to become pressurized, expelling the water from the tank and forcing it to travel through the attached hoses. The hose cart was housed in a small wood and tin structure on the east side of Central Avenue, between Third and Fourth Streets. Volunteer Firefighters were alerted to respond to a fire by the ringing of a bell located high on a pole beside the fire station.
In 1922, the department purchased its first motor driven vehicle, a 1922 Model T Ford truck, and the two water tanks from the hose cart were placed on the truck. In 1936, a 1935 Ford truck was purchased to replace the 13 year old Model T. During this time, a new City Hall was constructed and a garage large enough to house the new engine and a street truck was built directly behind it for $188. This garage saw many structural additions over the years and was in use until 1967. Some time during the early 1930s, an electric siren was purchased and installed, replacing the "old bell" that had served as the fire alarm for so long. Other improvements during that decade included the installation of hydrants, more fire hose and a new, 363 foot deep well to replace Dream Lake as the City's water supply. For many years, the Apopka Fire Department was the only fire department in northwest Orange County.
With an average of 12 to 15 volunteer firefighters and a fire chief, it was not unusual for the Apopka Fire Department to respond to calls in areas outside of Apopka such as Zellwood, Tangerine, Forest City, Lockhart, Mount Plymouth, Clarcona, and Lake Apopka. In the early 1940s, Apopka continued to grow and the department increased its roster to about 20 volunteers. Fire Chief Don Kenney made some additional improvements as well. Chief Kenney appointed five assistant chiefs, improved the department's training, and instituted a pay rate of $1 per call for volunteers. This pay was used to assist with costs associated with the cleaning and replacing of clothes that were damaged while fighting fires. Chief Kenney also purchased a copy of the "Fire Chief's Handbook" and joined the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Moreover, Apopka passed its first two city ordinances in the 1940s which pertained to the fire department. The first ordinance prohibited vehicles from following a pumper from a distance of 500 feet or less and prohibited any vehicle from parking or passing a pumper within the same distance. The second ordinance gave the fire chief full authority at a fire scene, as well as the authority to establish a "safety zone".
As war broke out in December of 1941, Chief Kenney and many other Apopkans left to serve in the military. Due to the shortage of young men left in the area, the Apopka High School agreed to let some of the senior class boys become volunteer firefighters to help protect the city. By the end of the war, the city council agreed that more improvements for the fire department were in order. Former Chief Grossenbacher, then a city commissioner, wrote the specifications for a new pumper and proposed plans to improve the fire fighting capability of the 1935 pumper. This was a very progressive step in providing firefighters with access to more readily available water at fire scenes. The plans were approved.
In 1947, a second fire pumper was purchased and a 500 gallon water tank was added to the 1935 pumper. The new pumper, purchased from General Corporation, was placed in service in early 1948. It included a 500 G.P.M pump, a 350 gallon water tank, a hose bed containing 1200 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a 24 foot extension ladder, a 14 foot roof ladder, a booster reel with 150 feet of hose, portable fire extinguishers, 2 straight tip nozzles, a fire axe and several other small fire fighting tools.
Another major improvement took place with the purchase of 1½ inch hose and new fog nozzles. Since there were no pre-connect compartments, a hose box was made to carry the hose above the hose bed. Both pumpers soon had these new lines that allowed firefighters to make fast attacks on fires, and also allowed firefighters to maneuver hose lines easier. The second pumper was originally purchased to protect the city in the event that the first pumper was needed at a fire located outside of Apopka. The Insurance Services Organization (ISO) had made this request in order to keep the insurance rates from rising in the city.
In 1948, the Apopka Fire Department added a 1919 Ladder Truck to its fleet. The history of this vehicle dates back to 1919, when a bright red American LaFrance Service Ladder Truck rolled into the Orlando Fire Department. It sported a 55-foot wooden ladder and a tank beneath the driver's seat where soda and acid could be combined to create a chemical that extinguished fires. The fire engine cost $7,650 which was a fair price to pay back in 1919. It was lettered as Orlando Fire Engine No. 3 and remained in service with Orlando for 29 years. On May 17, 1948, the then Mayor of Apopka, Dr. Charles Damsel, purchased the ladder truck from the Orlando Fire Department for $1. It may have been the best deal Apopka had ever made. Retired Fire Chief Roy Gilliam said the truck was worth thousands of dollars and was "the darling of the Apopka Fire Department".
The type 14, 4 cylinder ladder truck was the ultimate in firefighting equipment. It had the ability to carry a full range of scaling ladders plus all of its original ladders and equipment, which included a safety net that could be used to rescue persons who were trapped on upper floors. The truck still rode on wooden wheels and carried four Dietz King lanterns, the forerunners of the modern flashlight. The fire engine, with its hand operated bell and hand cranked engine, was the pride of the department. The truck was used regularly from 1948 until 1955, when newer equipment pushed the old ladder truck aside. According to Mayor Land, the truck deteriorated until the fire department made the restoration of the LaFrance one of its projects. They cleaned and polished the old truck and it became a favorite at area parades and exhibitions. It also participated in Orlando's annual fire prevention programs. In 1979, the ladder truck was officially taken out of service and never used again. Unfortunately, as it was stored in an empty bay at the old city garage, a garbage truck accidentally backed into the front of the LaFrance and caused damage to the radiator that was just too expensive to repair. The fate of the truck appeared unknown and dismal. However, in 1990, the City of Apopka approved a permanent loan of the truck to the Orange County Historical Museum where it is proudly displayed in one of Orlando's first fire stations. The Apopka name remains on the truck and the museum maintains and cares for this special piece of Apopka history.
The first all-service masks, used to protect firefighters from smoke, and the first foam and foam nozzles were purchased and placed into service in 1949. In the 1950s, more growth brought even more improvements to the Apopka Fire Department. A third pumper, purchased from the American La France Corporation, was put into service in 1953. And in 1955, Roy Gilliam, who was a member of the Orlando Fire Department, was appointed Training Officer for Apopka. Volunteers met twice a month for training sessions and instructors from the State Fire College were brought in to train recruits. In 1955, the Apopka Jaycees presented the department with a rescue boat, motor, and trailer. Since none of the current vehicles could pull the boat, volunteer firefighters raised money to purchase a 1951 ½ ton truck and sparked the beginning of what would later become known as the Apopka Fireman's Association.
The 1950s also brought many new rescue tools capable of handling all types of emergencies. Firefighters were not only trained how to use these latest tools, they were also taught how to administer first aid to victims. Records show that the department responded to a total of 61 alarms in 1958. In 1959, a new Class A 750-G.P.M. pumper was purchased from American La France for $24,000. This pumper would be the first of many Class A pumpers purchased throughout the years by the Apopka Fire Department. Another important acquisition in this decade was the purchase of turnout gear, which included fire helmets, turnout coats, and fire boots. The first self-contained air packs were also purchased from Scott Corporation, allowing the firefighters to enter almost any fire situation to make more aggressive attacks. During the 1950s the department's standard operating procedures included a response of 2 pumpers and the rescue truck to all structure fires. The third pumper was held in reserve in the event of a second call, which met the requirements of ISO. In 1960, Mayor John Land appointed Roy Gilliam as Fire Chief, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1981. Chief Gilliam, a former Lieutenant from the Orlando Fire Department and Training Officer for the Apopka Fire Department since 1955, was well versed in all phases of fire fighting and had the necessary experience to lead the department into a new era.
In the early 1960s, the Apopka Fire Department received its first VHF 2-Way mobile radios, base station, and 24 hour dispatching. During this time, many areas in Orange County, including Zellwood, had begun forming their own fire departments. As the fire calls increased in Apopka, so did the rescue calls which prompted the department to purchase its first resuscitator. Once again, the firefighters used their own funds to purchase a larger, 1957 1-Ton Chevrolet panel truck to replace the older rescue truck that was involved in an accident. Fortunately, the firefighters on board were not seriously injured in the accident and none of the equipment inside the truck was damaged. During the 1960s, the highest amount of calls answered in one year was 108 and took place in 1962.
It was common practice in the days prior to EMS that local funeral homes handled the ambulance service. However, on February 14, 1966, Brewster Bray, owner of Bray-Altman Funeral Home, met with Mayor John Land to inform him that he was discontinuing ambulance service in the Apopka area. With new regulations regarding the training of employees and added equipment on the ambulances, the costs kept mounting day by day. Mr. Bray had been operating at a substantial loss. Orlando ambulance companies said that they could not put a sub-station in Apopka and these private ambulance firms wanted the city to subsidize them a minimum of $30,000 to provide service to the area. When this was learned, Mayor Land met with Chief Gilliam to discuss how long it would take Apopka to enact an ambulance service of their own. It was decided that since the volunteer firemen were already trained in advanced first aid and the Apopka emergency truck could be used, the Apopka Fire Department would begin ambulance services in Apopka the very next day. Brewster Bray was regretful that he could no longer provide this service and offered his equipped, 1962 Pontiac ambulance to the city free of charge. The Apopka Fire Department was the first city in Orange County to provide ambulance services to its citizens - a service which is still provided today. An organizational meeting was held that February 14th at the fire department for the new free Volunteer Ambulance Service. A committee of the Chamber of Commerce and a committee of Volunteer Firemen were in attendance. This new ambulance service would not only be for the City of Apopka, but for the entire Apopka area, which included Fullers Corner, Clarcona, Lockhart, Wekiva Springs, Welch Road, Mount Dora, Tangerine, Lake Ola, out on the muck and back to Fullers Corner. Roy Gilliam would become head of the Volunteer Ambulance Service, since he was Chief of the fire department, and the ambulance service would be a branch of the fire department. The First Aid and Rescue Squad would operate on a non-profit, voluntary basis collecting no set fees for providing the ambulance on call, but would be set up on a donation basis whereby the entire community and surrounding area would participate in the operation. There would be no paid personnel, but the service would be called by an alerting system similar to that for volunteer firemen. The Rescue Squad would operate with the City's blessing, but would not be a department of or owned by the City. The City agreed to help finance some of the expenses involved in purchasing new equipment, which included a new ambulance. Fund drives were established and donations were accepted to help in repaying the City.
The first fund drive for the new service was unofficially started with a $25 donation made by Townsend's Bait and Tackle Shop, and The World of Suds Coin Laundry agreed to do all the linens for the Emergency Ambulance free of charge. Several other local businesses and citizens helped support the squad with donations. The Chamber of Commerce kept a permanent committee to assist in future fund drives in order to perpetuate this ambulance service.
In May of 1966, only three months into the new service, a new International ambulance was received along with new first aid equipment. This unit was immediately placed into service and the 1962 Pontiac was placed in reserve status. In September of this first year of service, a WESH-TV 2 camera crew spent two days in Apopka filming a half-hour show. The subject of this documentary concerned the fate of ambulance services since funeral homes throughout the state were discontinuing service. Apopka's portion of the show dealt with the setting-up, manning, and operation of the Apopka Emergency Ambulance Service. A camera crew spent most of two days in Apopka filming sequences to be used. Considerable time was spent filming a pre-planned ambulance "call". The call was set up to show the rapid response of members of the Emergency Squad when a call was received. The ambulance was filmed in its shed, on the way to the call, and at the scene. For the call, a squad of football players at Apopka Memorial High School pretended to be holding a practice session. One of them supposedly suffered a broken arm during the practice causing an ambulance to be summoned. Many shots of the ambulance crewmen working on the injured player and removing him to the hospital were taken. The show was aired in November, just in time for the start of the next annual fund drive to get under way.
The new service celebrated its first anniversary in February of 1967, marking a year of faithful and extensive service to the citizens of Northwest Orange County. During this first year, an astounding 358 calls were answered. No one in need was ever refused assistance. It was a year of service without compensation and in so many cases the service was deeply in the red. This volunteer service had operated at a loss for two reasons. First, not all calls were emergencies and secondly, the public was not supporting this free service by donations. Many who had used the service failed to give even a token amount. Several large industries helped support the new service in its first year including Plymouth's American Can Company which donated $500 and Minute Maid Company which donated $300. Individual donations of smaller sums helped increase the fund, as well. The service now had 15 men who were trained in first-aid and qualified to drive and assist in the calls. The original 1962 Pontiac was still used as a back up unit when the International was out on another call. The City worked very closely with the Volunteer Ambulance Service, which was soon to be housed in the new City Fire Station located on Fifth Street. And as operational expenses increased, so did the City's support of the service. All donations that were collected, which never seemed to be enough, went toward wiping out the deficit. It wasn't long before the Emergency Squad owed the City $2,200. Something had to be done to lessen the debt incurred by this new service.
Friday, September 28, 1967, became the official starting date of the Apopka Emergency Squad Ambulance fund drive. A ceremony for the initial membership purchase was held at the Apopka Fire Department where the two Emergency Squad ambulances were housed. Dr. T.E. McBride, a pioneer resident, as well as the oldest practicing physician in the Apopka area, purchased the first membership card for the drive. "This will be a historic moment since this is the method that will be used from now on to support the Emergency Squad," Chief Gilliam was quoted as J.B. Ragsdale of the Plymouth based American Can Company handed over a check for $500. Also donating was J.A Vickery, President of the United Steel Workers of America, who handed a check to C.L. Christiansen, Chairman of the Apopka area Chamber of Commerce.
In the next several weeks, volunteers attempted to canvass every home in the entire Emergency Squad coverage area to have them join the membership. It would cost only $1 per family member per year. A membership card would then be issued entitling the member to free transport to the hospital for one year. Non members would be charged $25 per call after the drive. For such a nominal fee, this gave the residents of the area a modern, well-equipped pair of ambulances ready to respond night or day to any emergency. The goal for the drive was to raise $7,000 and with this money the City could be paid back and the Squad would have enough money to operate the service through 1968. On September 30, the first membership card was turned in for service. A woman, who had just purchased her membership that morning, had fallen that afternoon and sustained a broken shoulder. She was transported to Mercy Medical Center. In just the first three days of the fund drive, over $2,700 was raised, 2,200 cards were sold and $500 was outright donated to start the fund in fine style. By October 10, 65 percent of the $7,000 goal had been collected and turned into the Apopka City Clerk. By October 23, the Apopka Emergency Squad Ambulance Fund Drive exceeded the $7,000 goal set less than a month earlier. The Zellwood Volunteer Fire Department continued to solicit funds for the ambulance and cards were still available at the Zellwood fire station. On November 10, Chief Gilliam had the pleasure of presenting Mayor John Land a check in the sum of $3,114.43. This completely paid off the debt owed to the City and for the first time in 18 months, the Apopka Emergency Squad was out of the red. The formal drive for operating funds for the squad was now at an end and a total of $8,244.04 had been collected through Christmas. In the second year of service, the Emergency Squad transported 450 patients with the busiest day having nine transports in one 24-hour period. On December 7, 1967, Chief Gilliam announced that a new ambulance was ordered for the Apopka Emergency Squad. It was a 1968 model Chevrolet Suburban Carryall and would be purchased through funds collected during the membership drive. The 1962 Pontiac, which was being used as a backup ambulance, would be sold and some of the equipment transferred to this new ambulance. The arrival of the Chevrolet allowed the Emergency Squad the use of two late model ambulances. It was put into service on March 14, 1968.
With fire calls increasing and equipment aging, the city council agreed to purchase two new Class A pumpers from W.S. Darley is 1967. The two new Darley pumpers arrived in 1968 and the 1935 and 1947 Ford Pumpers were retired from service. In addition to the completion of a new Fire and Police Headquarters, the Apopka Fire Department hired its first full-time firefighter, Hollis Nesmith, who manned the station by day, while volunteers manned the station by night. From this time forward, the Apopka Fire Department was staffed 24 hours a day. Soon after, volunteers received plectrons (FM receivers that could be placed in their homes) allowing firefighters to receive the dispatch information immediately. This meant they could now respond even faster to emergency calls. As ambulance calls continued to increase, a third ambulance was added to the fleet. Additional ambulance calls also meant additional recruitment of volunteers. Since there was no budget for the new ambulance, the firefighters raised money to support this service and purchase additional equipment. Passes were sold for $1 per person, or $5 per family. The pass entitled the holder one free use of the ambulance, during a one year period, if needed. Businesses and citizens alike contributed to the fund for several years until the city instituted a budget for the ambulance services.
In 1970, Chief Gilliam was hired on full-time which gave the department two full-time employees during the day: one to respond by fire engine and one to respond by ambulance. Volunteers still covered the evenings and weekends. As rapid growth continued in the Apopka area, a special taxing district was approved by the State Legislature. The district collected monies and paid the Apopka Fire Department on a contractual basis for fire protection in the area. The fee was $10 per home and $20 for businesses. With this new revenue coming in, the Mayor and Council decided it was time to hire additional personnel and in November 1972, nine additional men were hired (most of whom were volunteers) as full-time firefighters and ambulance attendants. Three shifts were created, with three men on each shift. Four full-time dispatchers were also hired to monitor the phones and radios on a 24 hour basis. Three additional firefighters were added to full-time status in 1973, and again in 1975, bringing the on-duty shift personnel to five men per shift. In 1975, the fire department responded to 2,296 calls, a substantial increase from the 426 calls that they responded to in 1966. The 1970s also saw the purchase of a 5,000 gallon tanker truck, a woods truck, a new (walk-thru type van) rescue truck and equipment, new ambulances, extrication equipment and training, and the department's first four paramedics. These paramedics were enrolled in the first paramedic program offered in Orange County. As the state mandated that firefighters receive at least 200 hours of firefighter training, the Apopka Fire Department began offering classes to all firefighters in the Central Florida area. A new training tower was constructed at the fire station to accommodate fire training standards. Training was maintained at a very high level throughout the 1970s as many new tools and equipment became available to the fire and EMS service. One of the most important tools that first became available to the fire service in the 1970s was the "Hurst Tool". This power tool could exert a much greater force than any other tool available and would allow rescue efforts to be more aggressive, safer and less time consuming. The cost, however, was over $4000 and many departments could not afford them. Through local organizational donations and community support, Apopka was able to purchase this life-saving tool. In 1977, another new pumper from W.S. Darley was purchased which boasted the department's first "5-man" cab and a 1978 Ford 1,000 G.P.M. 5-man cab was purchased and placed into service in 1979 to replace one of the older pumpers that was declared a total loss as a result of an auto accident.
On August 5, 1977, the department received its newest engine in almost ten years: a 1000 gallon per minute Ford Pumper built by the Darley Corporation. It was the first of its kind for Apopka and was equipped with a "jumpseat" for firefighters to sit and be fastened in while en route to an incident. This was a much safer way of transporting firefighters to and from a fire as it was a common practice in the past for firefighters to ride on the tailboard of the fire truck. The cost of this new engine was $50,000 and came with the latest and some of the most advanced equipment available to the fire service. It was the pride and joy of the department but would be short lived.
On Wednesday November 12, only three months after the arrival of the new engine, near tragedy struck the department. The new engine was responding to a report of a mobile home fire on Lewis Street off of Rock Springs Road when it collided with a car at the intersection of Welch Road and Rock Springs Road flipping the engine on its side and landing in a deep ditch. Lieutenant Jim Page and firefighter David Murphy were both injured in the accident. Lt. Murphy received a back injury and both were transported to Florida Hospital Apopka and admitted. The driver of the car was uninjured. The new engine was a total loss and by the time the second fire engine arrived at the mobile home fire, the home was also a complete loss.
The late 1970s also brought about the retirement of the 1919 Ladder Truck, which was replaced by the purchase of a 1950 Seagrave 85' Ladder Truck. As growth continued, both in the city and county, it became necessary to change the tax district fee system to a millage method of taxation in the early 1980s. The continued growth of the city to the north created the need for a second fire station to be built on West Welch Road, the purchase of a new pumper, and the hiring of six additional firefighters. The new station, Station #2, housed a pumper, an ambulance, a woods truck, and the new full-time firefighters. Station #3, built by firefighters to house one pumper in Clarcona (manned by volunteers in the Clarcona area) was moved onto city owned property in 1982. A double wide mobile home was added to house six full-time firefighters, as well as an ambulance and woods truck. As more firefighters successfully completed the paramedic program, the department was now capable of assigning a least one paramedic to each of the three stations on each of the three shifts.
In late 1981, Chief Leroy F. Gilliam retired from the Apopka Fire Department. As Chief Gilliam had played a vital part in the training of firefighters during his more than 25 years of service, funds were raised to build a training center in his honor across from Station #1. Upon completion of the building in 1982, it was named the "Leroy F. Gilliam Training Center". With the rapid growth of the city and department, a larger training facility was needed and construction was completed in 2009. The new training center is located on East Cleveland Street and still holds the title of the "Leroy F. Gilliam Training Center". Along with this training center is a large classroom building with three separate rooms, a four story training/burn tower, an emergency vehicle driving/skid pad, and a vehicle training extrication site. The training center is utilized by the fire department, as well as other city departments, for continuing education and training sessions.
In 1985, EMS Coordinator/Lieutenant Richard Anderson, became the department's newest Fire Chief. Chief Anderson began his career as a dispatcher for the department, he then became a full-time firefighter/EMT, and successfully completed the requirements to become one of the first paramedics in Orange County. Chief Anderson had been responsible for many positive and progressive changes as Apopka's Fire Chief. Today, the department is led by Chief Lee Bronson and has maintained its ISO Class 1 rating. This puts the Apopka Fire Department in the top .09% of the country. Apopka currently boasts 75 full-time firefighters, an administrative staff of 8, 30 volunteers, 4 fire stations, and a host of the latest technological and state-of-the art equipment available to the fire and EMS services.
As the Apopka Fire Department advances further into the 21st Century, we will continue to look for ways of enhancing our life-saving capabilities, the safety of our firefighters, the fire safety education of our citizens, and reducing the loss of lives and property. The members of the Apopka Fire Department are proud of our heritage, and are proud to continue to provide the citizens of Apopka with the same dedication and professional services they have relied on for the past hundred years.