Boca firefighters now handle medical emergencies, haz-mat incidents
City’s fire department started with one chief, one truck and a bunch of $4-a-fire volunteers

Published Sunday, March 20, 2005 1:00 am
by By Dale M. King


Boca Raton has gotten its money’s worth out of “Old Betsy.”

The 1926 America LaFrance fire engine was the community’s first piece of firefighting apparatus when the Boca Raton Town Council established a fire department in August 1928.

A lot of firefighters have come and gone. But “Old Betsy,” restored to her original mint condition, lives on. She is, in fact, the only vehicle on the National Register of Historic Places, having won that honor in 2001 – 34 years after she battled her last fire, the 1967 Jalbert factory blaze.

The fire department itself started off small – in a community that was small in season and even smaller when the snowbirds and tourists went home.

“Stores would close for two or three months in the off-season,” said longtime firefighter and training officer Darold Hurlbert. “If you wanted to eat out, it was hard to find a restaurant. Eventually, we got a road house and a Howard Johnson’s.”

Town fathers in 1928 decreed the fire department would have a single paid employee – the chief – and even that was part time. Volunteers “not to exceed 12” would help out at fires, for which they received $4 – or a bit more if the fire was serious.

The chief got $150 a year; the assistant chief, $8 a month.

As the city grew, so did the department – and its duties. Chief Bruce Silk, a 30-year veteran of the force, says today there are 185 firefighters. Most are also paramedics. Boca will open its eighth fire station by the end of the month, Silk said.

Besides fighting fires, the department checks for building code violations, provides emergency medical aid and has, for some 20 years, been responding with specialized hazardous materials equipment and apparatus.

Guy Bender, Boca’s first chief, probably couldn’t imagine what the department would become. With a budget of $700 for expenses, Bender was limited. But Boca was still a small agricultural town, so there wasn’t much to spend money on.

The city’s first fire station was attached to the Old Town Hall on North Federal Highway. It is now the headquarters of the Boca Raton Historical Society, which has turned the old fire station into a museum.

Because Boca’s land boom went bust, not much happened until World War II. Chief Harry Pardom took over in 1946 and John F. Loughery – the city’s first fulltime paid chief with an annual salary of $1,800– headed the department in the early 1950s. He and his family lived for a time at the fire station.

Under Loughery, historical records say, training became more important. In fact, twice a year, a teacher from the Florida State University Fire College offered 36 hours of instruction.

In 1954, Boca got its second fulltime paid firefighter, Daniel Andrews, who became chief in 1965.

With the 1960s came the land boom that really counted. The city began adding firefighters at a rapid clip. New stations also came on board. In the early 1970s, the department took over EMS services from the police and got the first modular rescue truck.

And the rest, says Silk, is history.

“About 1973, the paramedics started,” said Chief Silk. In fact, he said he arrived with the first bunch of medical trainees.

“At the time, the police provided emergency medical response.” But that didn’t last long. The town of Palm Beach was the first in the county to turn EMS services over to the fire department. Boca was second, said the chief.

Among the most respected chiefs in Boca was Jack Withrow, a firefighter who longed for that career from his youth. His mother, Betty Withrow, said her strapping, six-foot-tall son was a volunteer firefighter as a boy. “He kept wearing out his shoes. They didn’t wear boots at the time,” she said.

Withrow served in the Navy after high school, then went to New York. But one day, he called his mom and said he wanted to return to Boca. He ended up logging 30 years with the department. The fire department’s administrative office building on Glades Road is named in Withrow’s honor.

The ex-chief’s son, John Todd Withrow, is a Boca firefighter.

Hurlbert, a firefighter from 1958 to 1988, has detailed recollections of the trials, tribulations – and triumphs – of the growing department. “One of the problems we had in the early days was getting manpower together,” he said. The signal for a fire was a blast of a siren at Town Hall. “But you never knew how many volunteers would respond.” He recalled responding to a fire at the Boca Raton Resort. “I blew the siren, I called the chief and I responded with an engine,” he said. But only one volunteer showed up. Luckily, the fire in a guest’s room on the third floor wasn’t serious.

Another time when Hurlbert responded to a kitchen fire in a home on West Palmetto Park Road, 29 volunteers came to help. “And the fire was out when we got there.”

He was afraid he’d be in trouble with the chief who had to dole out six bucks a man for the fire. But the chief assured him he did the right thing.

Hurlbert was instrumental in bumping up the training skills of Boca’s fledgling department. “I became the training officer in 1964 and served until 1978.”

He also recalled how the department got into medical service. “We had a Chevrolet station wagon. We put first aid equipment in it.”

About 1974, he said, the city manager suggesting turning emergency medicine over to the police department. That lasted about a year.

Hurbert said then-Boca Chief Kerry Koen – now the chief in Delray Beach – was instrumental in “persuading the city manager and council to let the fire department run the EMS service.”

Firefighters jumped at the chance. As many as 16 were part of an early class of trainees to hone their skills at Boca Raton Community Hospital.

“Paramedics have done a wonderful job,” said Hurlbert, both then and now. Boca now has advanced lifesaving rescue units.

He recalled some advice that Chief Loughery gave him early on. “You don’t just put the fire out and leave.” That is a creed that he says has remained with the force.

Silk said his department has been instrumental in getting sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings. Even in the early 1980s, hotels and nursing homes in Boca Raton had to be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Dale M. King can be reached at dking@bocanews.com.