The Vigilant Engine and Hook & Ladder Company’s History 1904 - present...
At the start of the 20th century, railroad tracks had crept eastward to what is now called Great Neck Plaza but was known then as Thomaston, on election day in November, 1904, a group of the peninsula’s citizens recognized the need for fire protection at the station. Discussions began inside a building on North Station Plaza which was owned by W.R. Grace, the steamship magnate responsible for developing much of Great Neck. This building would soon become the first firehouse of the Vigilant Fire Company.
About 12 men, including several from the Alert Fire Company which had its headquarters in the upper village, were granted a charter from the Town of North Hempstead for a fire company. Thus, the first page in the history of the Vigilant Fire Company was written when the company was formally incorporated on November 21, 1904. In those days a fire bell sounded the alarm at the firehouse. Horses, used to pull the apparatus, borrowed from Robertson’s Bakery located down the street across from the station. The horses are long gone, but the bell stands in front of the “new” firehouse on Cuttermill Road. Today it is rung ceremoniously on Memorial Day and in honor of deceased members.
The Vigilants’ first alarm occurred in 1905, when they were summoned to extinguish a hayloft fire on the property of Captain Frederick Russell, situated at the corner of what is now Middle Neck Road and Northern Boulevard. The “Men” did such a good job at the blaze that Captain Russell presented them with an inscribed fire trumpet, which today rests in one of the company’s trophy cases and is occasionally carried by the Chief in parades.
Shortly after their organization, the Vigilants found a generous benefactor, William K. Vanderbilt, the Long Island millionaire who was in the habit of associating himself with the Great Neck Fire Companies. Mr. Vanderbilt had no sooner pocketed his checkbook after signing a $1,000 gift for the Alert firemen, when a group of the Vigilants solicited his aid. Their first major piece of equipment, a Waterous gasoline engine for pumping water was purchased with his loan of $1, 500. When he received the first installment toward the loan, Vanderbilt marked the promissory note “PAID” so that funds could be used towards additional equipment.
Vanderbilt took an interest in the new company and through his aid and guidance the Vigilants grew. He was delighted in seeing the fire company in action and at one time he staged a fire drill at his Lake Success mansion. Calling the men and equipment of the fire company to his home one afternoon, Vanderbilt watched eagerly as the members placed ladders and dragged hoses according to the accepted standards of firefighting in those days. Mrs. Vanderbilt also joined in the fun, running into the house midway through the mock firefighting proceedings to scream for help. Reacting immediately, the firemen scaled the ladders in the best heroic fashion and hauled Mrs. Vanderbilt and an accomplice down from the “blazing inferno”.
But, in order to maintain their three pieces of equipment, a hook and ladder, a hose reel tender, and a pumper, the Vigilants were still forced to hustle for funds. Among their money-raising devices were public dances, fairs, minstrel shows and solicitation campaigns. On several occasions out-door plays were staged with the assistance of many show people who made their homes in Great Neck including Gene Buck and Joseph Santley. Other show businesspeople who joined the ranks of the Vigilants included Ed Wynn, known for his advertisements for Texaco Fire Chief Gasoline.
The firehouse, a former barn sometimes used as a theatre and at other times a church, was employed frequently to present Edison Motion Pictures for the entertainment of the public and for the enrichments of the Vigilants’ coffers. The firehouse was the first movie theatre in Great Neck.
In 1913 the financial worries of the Vigilants were alleviated somewhat by the passage of the Maloney Act, a bill which gave towns the authority to contract with departments for fire protection. An agreement between the Vigilants and the Alerts provided that the company who arrived first to the scene was the one which would be paid for the fire. By 1914, the Vigilants were sporting a check for $1,500 from the Town of north Hempstead. In the ensuing years, with the organization of the peninsula’s incorporated villages, they received additional contracts.
The funding mechanism for most of the company’s expenses remained the same today. The Vigilant Fire Company provides fire protection to all of Great Neck Estates and Kensington, parts of Thomaston, Great Neck Plaza and the unincorporated areas north of the railroad tracks. Emergency Medical Services are provided to all of Great Neck which lies north of the Long Island Railroad.
The first Foreman of the Vigilant Fire Company, William Mullon, lived in a house next to the then firehouse where a hotel now stands. It was his job to sound the alarm when there was a fire. When telephone service became available either he or his wife would be always at home to answer the call. In later years a staff of full-time dispatchers known as engineers was hired to man the watch desk and maintain the equipment. The first step toward new technology occurred with the installation of an electric powered siren which replaced the bell as the means to summon the Vigilant volunteer members to alarms. The 1920’s saw the apparatus become completely motorized with the purchase of a “Bulldog” Mack pumper, a new hook and ladder truck, and a “booster” truck, one of the first fire trucks to carry its own water in order to make a fast attack on incipient fires.
Despite the Great Depression of 1929, the Vigilants were able to grow during the 1930’s. A new American LaFrance 1,000 gallon per minute pumper was placed in service in 1932. It too had a water tank rather than the chemical extinguisher system which was typical for the day. This engine remained in service until replacement in 1964. It was sold to ex-Captain Edward Power who drove the truck to Florida. In 1980 the Vigilant membership bought the truck back from a collector who had acquired it from Captain Power’s widow. Upon its return to Great Neck, old Engine 6 was restored to a new condition, and to this day it is proudly displayed at parades, antique fire truck musters and other special events.
Other advancements accomplished during the depression era of the 1930’s included purchases of the Vigilants’ first floodlight truck, an all-steel hydraulic aerial ladder truck and the community’s first ambulance. A major fire occurred at the apartment building located at 21 Barstow Road, where Engine 6 pumped for more than 24 hours straight at the hydrant located at Grace Avenue and Barstow Road. The fire was so big that mutual aid was requested from as far away as Glen Cove and Hempstead. The need to also summon a ladder truck from New York City quelled resistance by some people in the community for purchasing the aerial ladder.
No fire department is complete without having a Dalmatian for a mascot, and at various times through the years the Vigilants had three of the spotted firehouse dogs. The first one, named Smokey, was around during the 1930’s. In those days powerful springs triggered by a rope were used to open the apparatus door. Smokey learned to jump up, pull the rope and open the door whenever the siren blew. As a result, in summer or winter, the dispatcher would blow the 6-oclock siren test and then close the door. Another Smokey lived with the Vigilants circa 1950 and Woodstock was a Vigilant during the early 1980’s.
World War II created a heavy burden throughout the nation, and the Vigilants experienced its share of problems caused by so many members serving in the military. To adapt to the times, there was no change of chiefs until after the war ended. As a result, Chief Frank Gilliar, Sr. served the longest term for a chief, 11 years from 1936-1947. During those years, the first women in the Vigilants helped to staff the ambulance service. Virginia Grahm, a well-known radio personality who lived in Great Neck, regularly drove the ambulance on calls.
After the war, it was possible to buy motor vehicles of all types once again. The Vigilants purchased a new 700 series American LaFrance pumper in 1947, and a Mack pumper in 1952. The Mack, which also has been preserved as an antique, is unique in its construction. The chassis was built in Maspeth, Queens at a time when Mack Trucks was during a corporate re-location. The unfinished truck was moved to Allentown, PA, where its final assembly was completed. World War II also provided the technology for 2-way radio, and in the early 1950’s the Vigilants first installed a radio base station at the firehouse and mobile radios on key apparatus.
The Soundview Golf Course was in the Village of Great Neck Estates in the section west of Bayview Avenue. Its clubhouse was the site of many Vigilant installation dinners until the club closed its doors in 1949. Strangely, a month before the clubhouse was to be demolished, the Vigilants were summoned to a fire which had the building fully engulfed upon arrival of the first apparatus.
But another fire with a different ending occurred on January 7, 1957, at a house on Wilbur Drive. That day Firefighter Edward Dixon successfully rescued a young child who was trapped in the burning house. For his heroism, Dixon was presented the first “Fireman of the Year” Award by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.
Other rescues have been performed through the years at 12 Bond Street, 1 Ash Place and 7 Bond Street. Eighteen members of the Vigilant Fire Company proudly display red valor bars on their dress uniforms in recognition of rescues of trapped victims at fires. Sadly, there have also been those who could not be saved or who have been seriously injured at fires; this serves as a reminder that despite all its glory, firefighting in Great Neck is very real and can be dangerous.
This was demonstrated on April 17, 1959, when a major fire destroyed a building on Middle Neck Road opposite Cedar Drive. The fire started in a wood finishing shop and the owner received severe burns on his arms when vapors from varnish fumes ignited explosively.
By the late 1950’s, the Vigilants had outgrown their original wood frame firehouse on North Station Plaza, and a new firehouse was built on Cuttermill Road in 1957. The property was donated by a widow who lived in an old house with a spire atop the hill which is now a parking lot. In return for her gift, she was allowed to live in her house for the rest of her life, and it was the job of the engineers to check on her every day. Today, the original firehouse on North Station Plaza is a funeral home.
The Vigilants continued as a progressive organization with the introduction of Plectron radios in the early 1960’s. These devices sound the fire alarm in the members’ homes or businesses and replaced a telephone calling chain performed by several members’ wives to alert those who could not hear the sirens. Also, the first trucks with enclosed cabs arrived; a new floodlight truck in 1960 and a new pumper in 1964. In 1967 the Vigilants were among the first on Long Island to put an elevated bucket into service. The Pittman Snorkel had a bucket at the end of an 85-foot boom.
These new trucks saw much action in the late 1960’s, and the early 1970’s during what was dubbed the “beauty parlor wars”. Almost every beauty parlor in the Great Neck Plaza area was burned out over a 4-year period.
A huge fire occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1969 at Middle Neck Road and Maple Drive. The suspicious fire had the basement fully involved on arrival, and it quickly spread upward throughout the building. Firefighting operations continued for more than 12 hours, and mop-up operations were not completed until 3 days had passed. Mutual-aid assistance was summoned from the entire Eighth Fire Battalion, and because the local draft board, located on the 2 nd floor was destroyed by the fire, FBI agents arrived on the scene shortly after the fire department. One of the occupancies was a beauty parlor.
Technical advancements allowed radios to become smaller in the 1970’s. Handie-talkies became the standard means to communicate on the fire ground. Also, personal pagers were implemented to call out members to alarms. In 1974, the traditional Cadillac ambulance was replaced with a “box” type ambulance as emergency medical services entered a new generation. Members of the Vigilants started training in 1975 and 1976 as emergency medical technicians at both basic and advanced levels. Advanced life support was introduced to Great Neck as life saving medications and cardiac defibrillation became routinely administered by the volunteers of the Vigilant Fire Company. On August 11, 1977, these new techniques saw their first success when a victim in full cardiac arrest was successfully revived at the scene of a wedding reception in Kings Point. Through the years many other people have similarly benefited from the Vigilant ambulance and its highly trained members.
As more tall buildings were built, the Vigilants saw the need for a second ladder truck, and a rear-mount 100-foot aerial ladder was purchased in 1976. Large diameter hose was also introduced to provide maximum water supply from hydrants to the pumpers. In 1977 the first “Jaws-of-Life” arrived; this powerful hydraulic rescue tool allows firefighters to rapidly pry and cut their way to trapped victims.
Also in 1977, the Vigilants had to quickly adapt to rural firefighting operations when the community water system suffered a major failure which lasted for several days. The first step was to convert a local sewer cleaning machine to a high-pressure booster truck. The rig was the first line of defense along with the makeshift water tanker until a mutual-aid tanker and crew relocated for 3 days from the Eatons Neck Fire Department in Suffolk County. Fortunately, there were no major fires, but Vigilant members came away with an appreciation for how fires are fought in communities which have no fire hydrants.
In 1979 the Vigilant Fire Company celebrated its 75 th anniversary. A block party was held on Cuttermill Road in one of the few remaining vacant lots in the downtown area, and a parade was held which proceeded from Allenwood Road, down Middle Neck Road and then past the firehouse. But the “highlight” of the celebration was a major fire in a row of stores on Bond Street which happened just after preparations for the festivities had been completed.
The 1980’s saw the Vigilants continue to keep up with the community’s needs. A heavy-duty rescue truck which replaced the floodlight truck has seen repeated duty not only at fires, but also at many serious auto accidents especially along the Bayview Avenue corridor.
On September 10, 1981, the Vigilants responded to a building collapse at a local health club which had been converted from an auto dealership. First arriving firefighters learned that a woman was confirmed to be trapped in the swimming pool under the falling ceiling, and it was not known how many others might be inside. Debris was carefully cut away to gain access to the victim who was removed to the hospital with only minor injuries. An extensive search revealed that there were no other victims.
Another rescue situation occurred almost halfway into the decade near the New York City border when the Long Island Railroad tracks washed out during a serious thunderstorm. A passing train filled with passengers became trapped in mid-air and was suspended only by the drooping rails. The Vigilants responded, and successfully removed all the victims to safety.
A new mini pumper, bought in 1985, gave firefighters rapid access to car fires which could happen in any of the numerous underground parking garages which are now common in Great neck. The Fire Police Squad was formalized to act as an integral support unit to firefighting operations; its sergeant is appointed by the Chief each year.
The EMS mission of the Vigilants continued to grow with an increasingly large number of calls and greater training demands being placed on EMTs. A second ambulance was placed in service in 1983, and the Fire Medic Squad was formed in 1984. The squad allowed members to serve only in the medical operation of the Company without the need to train for firefighting skills. Women once again became an important part of the Vigilant membership, both as medics and as firefighters.
To house the additional equipment a larger firehouse was needed. An addition which doubled the size of the Vigilants’ building was opened in 1981. In addition to more room for apparatus, new space was allocated for a modern dispatch room, a more complete workshop and much needed office and administrative areas. Training facilities were augmented by a new classroom and a 4-story training tower which permits training with live fires.
In the mid-1980’s, serious environmental damage to the marshlands at the south end of Little Neck Bay was averted when Vigilant members used created a dike to mitigate a major oil spill and prevented it from entering the storm water drainage system. The Vigilants represented the residents of Great Neck in 1990 when they responded mutual aid to the Avianca Airlines crash in Oyster Bay Cove, and the Sands Point Nursing Home fire in Port Washington.
In the early 1990’s, the Vigilant Fire Company was approached by the Village of Kensington to dispatch their police department, a service which continues today. Also in 1996, dispatch of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department was started. In 2003, the Vigilant engineers dispatched a total of 4147 emergency calls.
Training has always been a priority for the Vigilants starting with the first drills held at the home of Honorary Chief Vanderbilt. Regular classes and exercises are held each month, and the company attends classes at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage where drills with live fires are conducted in several special props which present typical fire situations. Other classes are held in technical rescue, vehicle extrication, hazardous materials, and firefighting tactics. Ambulance personnel are trained to at least the level of Emergency Medical Technician with many continuing on to Advanced Emergency Medical Technician and some to the Paramedic level. All training meets or exceeds the standards established by New York State, the National Fire Academy and the National Fire Protection Association.
In 1996, a huge brush fire occurred in Suffolk County. Response involved every fire department on Long Island. Vigilant members with a pumper worked at this fire for 48 hours until the fire was brought under control.
Throughout the 1990’s the number of EMS calls continued to skyrocket. In 1998 a third ambulance was added to the fleet. To ensure the fastest response possible to the northern part of Great Neck, space for this vehicle was rented from the Alert Fire Company at their annex firehouse on Steamboat Road. Utilization of the ambulance service has risen from once or twice a week when it was started in 1937 to 2200 calls in 2022.
The new century saw the Vigilants continuing on the forefront with the latest in equipment and skills. Examples include computer-aided dispatch, thermal imaging cameras, and digital gas and atmospheric metering equipment to name a few.
But the Vigilants’ darkest day came on September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The Vigilants quickly responded to the requests for help and units were assigned to the city immediately that morning and at various times for the next week. During that first afternoon, the tragedy hit home when word came that Vigilant First Assistant Chief Jonathan Ielpi, who was a New York City firefighter was missing. Chief Ielpi’s body was recovered from the rubble 3 months later. In 2002 a local park on Grace Avenue was dedicated to his memory, and a statue portraying him was unveiled in 2003 at a memorial devoted to Great Neck firefighters killed in the line of duty.
The advent of terrorism within our nation’s borders brought a whole new dimension to firefighting. In addition to the standard firefighting and rescue skills, members must now be trained in response to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction and decontamination of large numbers of people.
As Emergency Medical Services continued to grow and place even more of a strain on the Vigilant resources, a source for new members was found at the United States Merchant Marine Academy where students receive EMT training. Starting in 2003 members of the student body responded as part of the Vigilant cadre to assist those in need of help on the community.
In addition to responding to fires, the Vigilants continue to encounter victims in need of rescue or extrication, including a dolphin which beached itself in Great Neck Estates. But serious automobile accidents remain the biggest use for the Hurst Tool, (Jaws of Life). This was typified also during the summer of 2003 when the driver of a car on Bayview Avenue was impaled in the abdomen by a falling tree branch which crashed through his windshield. The victim was successfully rescued, treated, and transported to the hospital where he fully recovered. Not every case has a happy ending, but most do thanks to the untiring efforts of the Vigilant membership.
The Vigilants continue to move forward as they pass the milestone of 119 years of service. The business of firefighting has changed many times over the years, but the mission of helping those in need and the vital role of the Vigilant Fire Company remains the same. Today’s members, 144 strong, are a true demographic mix of people who come from every ethnic group found in Great Neck. In 2003, they answered the call to 1892 emergencies. And they stand ready to serve their community with the same determination and spirit held by those of the original charter and incorporate the Vigilant Engine and Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Inc. of Thomaston, New York.