Prior to organized fire protection in Whitehall Township, the local industries of Fullerton, West Catasauqua, Hokendauqua, Egypt and Cementon provided the firefighting equipment for their local villages. The iron and cement industries, operating their blast furnaces day and night, typically experienced fires. This resulted in organized fire brigades at the local plants. In the event of a fire in their respective village, residents were allowed to use their fire equipment.

By January 1909, more modern methods of fire fighting became available when the Clear Springs Water Co. began to offer fire hydrants at a cost of $20 annually per hydrant under a ten-year contract. Because the individual towns were not incorporated as boroughs, they were at the mercy of the Whitehall Township commissioners to order the placing of fire hydrants.

Because of the township's lack of action regarding the fire protection issue, the citizens of West Catasauqua, Cementon, Egypt and especially Fullerton, became extremely agitated. Public meetings were held at the Windsor Hotel, Fullerton, to create a petition to present the matter to the commissioners.

Whitehall Fire Department

In response to the public outcry, on Feb. 8, 1909, the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution offering a chemical engine to each of the towns desiring fire protection. However, before the township would spend the needed $1,500 for each engine, the villages had to meet specific requirements.

The conditions of the agreement were that each town had to build or rent a station to house the engine at their own expense, the house had to be large enough so that the township could place within it one or more jail cells, and it was required to have a meeting room large enough for use by both the fire department and the township commissioners. Until then, the commissioners held their meetings at the Windsor Hotel, Fullerton, and the High School at Hokendauqua.

While ownership of the apparatus remained with the township, all bylaws governing the various fire companies were subject to approval and under the control of the newly formed Fire & Police Committee under the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners.

A few months later, the commissioners signed an agreement with the Clear Springs Water Co. to install fire plugs at the schoolhouses in Fullerton, West Catasauqua, Hokendauqua, Cementon and Egypt, appeasing the residents on the fire issue.

The official birthdate of the Whitehall Township Fire Department was November 17th, 1913. On that date, the Board of Township Commissioners adopted Ordinance No. 138 at a meeting held in the Hokendauqua. The ordinance officially established the criteria for organizing a fire company and applying for admittance into the newly formed Department. It also established the positions of Fire Marshall and Assistant Fire Marshall. The Fire Marshall must be a member of one of the fire companies, and each fire company would have an Assistant Fire Marshall. The Fire Marshall position paid $15 per year, the Assistant Fire Marshall would receive $5 per year. These titles and salaries would be modified on April 17th 1941 with passing of Ordinance 381. The positions were now called Chief and Assistant Chief. In that ordinance the positions and responsibilities of Chief Driver and two Assistant Drivers were created for each fire company.

Corporate records indicate the following dates of organization for the companies making up the Whitehall Township Fire Department, two of which were already established when the ordinance was created:

The fire chief's since the late 1930s were Milt Wescoe, Joseph Ludwig, Terry Kuntz, William Balliet, Robert L. Benner January 1986-March 2016, David Nelson September 2016-Present

Answering the call...

During the 1930s and 40s, to alert members of a fire, each fire company had a mechanical wind out fire siren. When a fire was reported, the fire company assistant chief was called at his home, he would then report to the fire company to activate the siren. In their absence, the next member on the phone list was called. A series of siren wheels were stored at the fire company. Reference cards based on village intersections indicated which wheel should be used. This unique wheel device was placed in the siren mechanism. The wheel caused the siren to wind up and down in a specific pattern. Upon hearing the siren pattern, members would know the closest intersection of the fire and respond accordingly. During daytime hours, while the assistant chief was at work, the fire company social club bartender would receive the phone call and place the appropriate wheel in the siren.

In 1954, the Township established a central dispatching office for fire and police. It was located in a building adjacent to the Fullerton Fire Company on Quarry Street. Phone calls for emergencies were then received at this central office and the assistant fire chief was called at his residence. Once the assistant chief was notified, their wife would then call down the list of fire company members to alert them of a fire. The assistant chief would respond to the station and sound the siren.

From 1944 to 1956, a separate firefighting organization known as "The Smoke Eaters" existed. Individuals wishing to become a member of the Smoke Eaters had to complete 75 hours of firefighting in order to become a member. They owned their own equipment, including an old Mack truck that they converted into a fire truck. The vehicle was housed in Hoch's Garage in Fullerton although members of the organization came from all over the Township. Then, in the mid 50s, a series of barn fires occurred in the Fullerton section of the Township, including one barn on the property of what is now the Lehigh Valley Mall. A member trying to attain his 75 hours of firefighting was found responsible for that fire and arrested for arson. The organization disbanded a short while later.

1960s Hahn Engine 9 Pumper

In the 1960s and 70s, improvements in technology lead to the introduction of the home alert loudspeaker box. These speaker boxes, manufactured by such companies as Motorola, Plectron and GE, were triggered by the central dispatch office. Using this new radio alerting technology, dispatchers could now inform members of the type and location of the fire all at once simultaneously. This eliminated the member to member phone calling tree and sped up response times dramatically. Using this same technology, the fire station sirens were also triggered to activate. Many sirens by this time were replaced with newer units that no longer used the wheel device. New electronic timing mechanisms in the sirens could create different siren revolution patterns for fire calls, air raids and other Civil Defense emergencies.

The need for the fire station siren waned in recent years with the advent of the personal alert pagers now used by all members. The Hokendauqua Fire Company had the last active fire company siren in the Township. This siren sounded for the final time in September of 2012 when it was dismantled to make room for construction of the new Hokendauqua Fire station.

One final note on dispatching and radio communications. In the 90s, faced with the State mandated Act 78 consolidation of 911 call taking, the Township reluctantly agreed to transfer all of its fire and police dispatching duties to the Lehigh County Communications Center in Allentown. After 40 years of providing reliable dispatching services for our residents, the dispatch office signed off the air at 11:59 PM, June 30, 1994, marking the end of an era in Township history.

Diversity in the ranks...

In the beginning of the 1990s, seeing a need to improve diversity in the fire department for female volunteers, the Township realigned the process for becoming a firefighter in the Township. Because certain fire companies in the Township did not allow female members, the Township stepped in and removed the membership barrier by requiring all volunteers to now join directly with the Whitehall Township Bureau of Fire rather than with the individual fire companies. From that point forward, all members were now considered volunteer Township employees. This new arrangement also helped with addressing the various legal and insurance matters that come with providing fire protection.

These days, four of the five incorporated volunteer fire companies of Whitehall Township operate as social clubs. They are no longer responsible for providing fire protection in the Township. All five do, however, continue to house the equipment as required in the agreement established in February 1909. The Township provides an annual rent payment to each fire company for the space occupied by the fire department.

We thank resident and Township Historian Karen Gensey for all of the research and content provided
on the early origins of fire protection in the Township.

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