HISTORY OF THE RIVER VALE FIRE DEPARTMENT
Drafted by Ex-Chief Thomas Shine, Sr.
The River Vale Volunteer Fire Department, Chemical Co. #1 was organized and incorporated in August, 1923. For the most part, the newly organized Fire Department was made up of the Men’s Community Club of River Vale who used a room above the Beck Grocery Store for their meetings. The store was located at the southwest corner of River Vale Road and Westwood Ave. For many years this area of town was commonly known as the “Four Corners” and some long-term residents still call it “Four Corners” today.
The Fire Department was organized at a specially called meeting of the Men’s Community Club and other interested persons from the Township of River Vale. After a brief meeting of the club on August 13, 1923, the River Vale Volunteer Fire Department was created from the attendees of the Men’s Community Club and additional interested residents. Ellis M. Collignon Jr. was appointed temporary chairman and called the first meeting to order. At the first election of Officers, George Artz was elected president and Leopold Herrmann, a former fireman from Hudson County, but then a resident of River Vale, was elected as the first Fire Chief. Mr. Clarence Shuttleworth of Hillsdale, a former Fire Chief from the neighboring town of Hillsdale, played an important role in shaping and organizing the new River Vale Fire Department. In the past, he has been referred to as the “father” of the department for the invaluable assistance he provided in those early days.
From its organization date, the newly created Fire Department furnished fire protection to the Township of River Vale under a contract for an annual fee. Seeing an opportunity to raise additional money, they also furnished fire protection to the Borough of Old Tappan under contract for an annual fee, until such time as Old Tappan established its own Volunteer Fire Company. Ellis M. Collignon Jr. represented the fire department at that time and drew up the contracts. The first piece of apparatus purchased by the department was a used truck from The American –La France Company in New York City. It was a combination hose and chemical tank truck. There were no water mains or fire hydrants in River Vale at that time with the exception of those on Cedar Lane and Demarest Ave., and those hydrants were part of the Hillsdale system. The River Vale Fire Department held its first carnival June 18-21, 1924. The first page of their “Souvenir Journal” thanks the community with the following greeting: “We greet our friends and patrons to this, our first carnival and water sports. It is because of your hearty co-operation and generous support that we have been enabled to go forward towards the accomplishment of worthy objects. From the proceeds of funds raised in this community during the past year we have become the owners of the America La France Fire Truck, with which we are ready at all hours to respond, night and day.” This first truck was housed in an old school building that had been moved from Piermont Ave. to the Holdrum property, currently 350 River Vale Rd. The former school house had served as a carriage house for the Holdrum Farm. At that time the fire department purchased and owned its own equipment.
In the latter part of 1925, the Fire Department desired to join the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association so that members could be entitled to a “Relief “ benefit in the event of an accident or injury, and their families may receive a burial benefit in case of death. Since the State Association collected and dispersed these funds under State laws, it became necessary for the Fire Department to become part of the municipal government under municipal control. As a result, the Township of River Vale was required to create the Fire Department as it is today. The Township Committee passed the necessary municipal ordinance in December 1931. The apparatus owned by the former Incorporated Fire Department became Township property. In the late 1920’s, the Township of River Vale began the construction of a new municipal building inclusive of a new Fire House, on property formerly owned by Garret S. Holdrum. This building stood at the present site of the South Fire House at 330 River Vale Rd. and was destroyed by fire in April 1974. A 1931 Mack pumper had been added to the department and was housed at the new Fire House. Throughout the years prior to the April 1974 fire, this Fire House was home to additional pieces of apparatus as the older apparatus was retired. In November of 1940 a Mack Combination was purchased and in June of 1946 a 1943 Ford, former military fire vehicle was added to the fleet. The two Mack’s and the Ford were housed for several years in the cramped quarters of a Fire House designed with only two bays.
In the early days of the Fire Department, the volunteer firemen were summoned to duty by a community fire alarm system consisting of several fire gongs. A large iron ring was hung by heavy supports and an iron beater would be attached to the same support structure. Anyone reporting a fire would go to the nearest fire gong and strike it repeatedly until help arrived. Several of these fire gongs were placed throughout the community. One of these fire gongs is currently displayed at the North Fire House and serves as a memorial to deceased Fire Department members of the past. This obsolete fire alarm system was eventually replaced by an air horn system and then a fire siren system that is still used today. As the years progressed, a telephone bell system was used in addition to the audible fire alarm system. Each firefighter had such a bell system installed in their homes and the system was activated via telephone from Police Headquarters. As technology evolved over the years, the bell system gave way to a radio tone alert system that is still in use today. The initial radio tone alert system started with a large radio receiver unit that was issued to each firefighter and placed in their homes. With the push of a button at Police Headquarters the desk officer could send out a tone that would open each receiver. Using a dedicated radio frequency, the desk officer could give verbal messages advising firefighters of the location and type of fire related emergency that required their response. Members of the Fire Department called these receivers “Plectrons” named from the company that manufactured them. This system is still used today. The major difference is that the radio receivers issued to each firefighter are called “pagers” and are battery operated. They stay in an amplified charger when the firefighter is home and can be carried with the firefighter when they leave their homes. They are small and easily fit into a pocket or clipped to a belt.
As the Township of River Vale grew, more development occurred in the north end of town. Serious consideration was given to constructing a second Fire House for better response. In 1958, a new 500-gallon per minute International Harvester TASC pumper was purchased to replace the 1931 Mack. Three trucks still occupied the two bays at the South Fire House, and it became time to expand. In 1960, the construction of the North Firehouse, located at River Vale Road and Prospect Avenue, was completed and a dedication ceremony was held. This new building would house another new 1960 International Harvester HOWE pumper and the 1943 Ford, which was moved from the South Fire House to the North Fire House. The Township of River Vale now had two Fire Houses with two pieces of fire apparatus in each. A 1963 HOWE Quad was purchased to replace the Mack purchased in 1940 and it was housed in the South Fire House with the International Harvester TASC purchased in 1958.Both of these trucks would be destroyed by fire in the early morning hours of April 29, 1974. For many years the Fire Chief responded to fire calls on the apparatus of the time with the department members. Eventually, the Chief would respond directly to the fire in his own personal vehicle, ahead of the manpower and equipment, in order to evaluate the scene prior to their arrival. In 1966, a Ford Ranch Wagon was purchased as the first Chief’s Car to assist the Chief with the performance of his responsibilities. In 1968, a new Ford F250 Emergency truck was added to the department. As the need for a slightly larger Emergency truck became evident, a 1971 International 1510 was purchased to replace the 1968 Emergency truck. An addition to the rear of the South Fire House was constructed to house this truck. This piece of apparatus evolved to become a Rescue Truck. It carried specialized equipment for rescue related operations such as extrication tools for motor vehicle crashes. As the Emergency/Rescue vehicles were added to the fleet, it became time to retire the 1943 Ford. This truck was donated to the NuAngola, Pennsylvania Fire Department and they still have it today. This truck returned to River Vale for the Fire Departments 75th Anniversary parade in 1998.
Tragedy struck the Township of River Vale on the early morning hours of April 29, 1974. The radio tone alert system awoke sleeping firefighters to a message that there was a working structure fire next door to Police Headquarters. Responding firefighters arrived at the South Fire House to observe the front overhead doors to by lying on the pavement and flames shooting out from each bay of the garage. The Town Hall and Fire House built in the late 1920’s was consumed in fire. The two pieces of fire apparatus were still inside the building and firefighters were unable to get to them. The 1960 International Harvester pumper responded with firefighters from the North Fire House and members from the south watched seemingly helpless as two of their trucks were consumed by fire. Several firefighters approached the rear garage area and worked furiously to save two additional vehicles. A 1974 Chevrolet Suburban had been purchased as a Chief’s vehicle to replace the 1966 Ford. This Chief’s car was so new it had not even been lettered or have emergency lights installed. This vehicle was saved without any damage. After several attempts through heavy smoke, the 1971 Emergency truck was also saved. This vehicle was driven through the closed overhead door and suffered serious damage. This truck continued to serve the community until it was replaced in 1989. Surrounding communities and mutual aid Fire Departments had been summoned immediately and firefighters from neighboring towns assisted River Vale extinguishing the fire. The South Fire House, two engines and most of the department’s gear and equipment were destroyed. Fire Departments from several other communities came to the aid of River Vale by providing various forms of donated gear and equipment. The Hillsdale and Fort Lee Fire Departments donated a 1956 Ford and a 1955 open cab Mack to assist the River Vale Fire Department in continuing to provide fire service to their residents. These two engines were housed in the DPW building behind the destroyed South Fire House along with the 1971 Emergency truck. Plans to rebuild were underway.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1974 two brand new engines arrived in River Vale. The 1974 Hahn’s were 1000 gallon per minute pumpers and had automatic transmissions. They were a much-welcomed enhancement to the River Vale Fire Department. They were also temporarily housed in the same DPW building and the Hillsdale and Fort Lee engines were returned to their owners with grateful and heartfelt thanks. In 1975, the construction of a new South Fire House was completed and is the building that exists today. This building was completed just in time to receive a brand new 1975 Seagrave 100’Arial Ladder Truck. The Holiday Farm Condominium Complex was under construction on Piermont Avenue and included multiple floors of single-family dwellings. The Minetto Family who developed this property donated this ladder truck to the Township of River Vale to enhance their firefighting and rescue capabilities. The River Vale Fire Department was back in business after the 1974 tragedy. A new South Fire House was now home to a 1975 Seagrave 100’Arial Ladder, two 1974 Hahn engines and the 1971 Emergency Truck saved from the fire. The Fire Chief was now responding to fire scenes in a fully equipped 1974 Chevrolet Suburban.
In 1981, another Hahn engine was purchased to replace the 1960 Howe at the North Fire House and a Ford LTD Station Wagon replaced the 1974 Chevrolet Suburban as the Chief’s vehicle. Again in 1988, the Chief’s vehicle was replaced with a Chevrolet Caprice. As the Township grew, so did the Fire Prevention Bureau. The retired Chief’s vehicles would serve the Fire Prevention Bureau well as its members set out on their weekly inspections.
In 1989, a new Ford F800 Rescue Truck was purchased to replace the 1971 Emergency Truck. In 1996, a new Pierce 100’ Tower was purchased to replace the 1975 Seagrave 100’ Arial Ladder. In 2001, a new Pierce 2000 gallon per minute Engine was purchased to replace one of the 1974 Hahn’s received after the Fire House fire. In 2001, The Bergen County 200 Club donated funding for a rescue boat and trailer now in service for water rescue operations on Lake Tappan and the rivers that surround River Vale. This rescue boat replaced a smaller version of one destroyed during rescue operations of Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999.