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Rochester Hills Fire Department, A Brief History
By Patrick J. McKay, Rochester Hills Museum Manager, Part-time Firefighter, RHFD

The Rochester Hills Fire Department has been proudly serving our residents since 1984. In order to understand the history of the Rochester Hills Fire Department, you have to understand the fascinating history of our community, our state and our country. We also have to understand the role that the Village and City of Rochester has played in fire protection in our community. 

The City of Rochester Hills has existed since 1984 when voters in Avon Township voted to change from a township to a City form of government to avoid annexation issues from neighboring communities. Avon Township was formed in 1983, two years before the Territory of Michigan was admitted to the United States in 1837. In its early days, Avon Township was a rural area and an agricultural based community. Within Avon Township was the Village of Rochester that served as the commercial center for the regional area. Rochester was located near three water sources - Clinton River, Paint Creek, and Stoney Creek - that provided water for various mills that met the needs for our community residents. Rochester's location also attracted a railroad in 1872, and another railroad in 1879 enhancing its location as a commercial center and creating the need for fire protection.

In 1894, Rochester created a water works system by purchasing land 2 miles outside of town to supply a steady pressure of water for the Village residents.

Until 1895, there was no organized fire protection in our community. Avon Township was too rural and sparsely populated to organize a fire department, and the Village of Rochester, although experiencing several fires that nearly destroyed the entire downtown area, was also reluctant to provide funds to organize a fire department.

In May, 1895, a meeting was held in the Hotel St. James in the Village of Rochester to organize a fire department and within two weeks over 20 men had joined. By June 1895, the first fire hose and supplies were purchased from the Revere Rubber Company - for $545 the Village purchased 800 feet of hose, two hose carts, and all the necessary supplies. By July 1, 32 men offered to join the fire department.

Until fire engines could be purchased, hose carts were taken directly to hydrants, and with 60 points or more of pressure, this set-up could provide a respectable amount of water. This was not an unusual practice for departments on a budget. Unfortunately, if there was not a hydrant nearby, a home was lost to fire. In the surrounding and rural Avon Township, there was no ability to provide fire protection with this equipment.

The hand drawn carts lasted in Rochester until 1922 when the first pumper was purchased for $2,250 from C.H. Sutphen Co., and was a chemical unit that could work independently of hydrants. Chemical trucks operated with a two-tank system that used bi-carbonate of soda and sulfuric acid mixed together to create pressure. Its use as a popular piece of firefighting equipment was limited. 

For major fires in Rochester, fire apparatus was burrowed from neighboring Departments such as Pontiac for the Interurban barn fires on May 19, 1923. A triple combination pumper, similar to pumpers today, was not purchased until 1926.

The acquisition and modernization of the Rochester Fire Department was important to Avon Township residents since the Rochester Fire Department responded to all structure fires within the township. Nearly all fires in the Township were complete losses due to the lack of any firefighting equipment and water supply.

In 1927, The Village of Rochester authorized the purchase of a fire truck specifically to help the surrounding community of Avon Township - actually only those living within a seven-mile radius of the Village of Rochester. Eighty-three subscribers contributed to the purchase of this truck. Notable residents and businesses such as Ferry Morse Seed Company at Auburn and Rochester Roads and the Parke-Davis Company were subscribers.

Avon Township Grows

During the 1930s the population of Avon Township steadily increased and the life expectancy of the rural fire truck housed in Rochester was shorter than originally thought. In 1939 there were more fires in Avon Township than there were in the Village of Rochester. In 1941, a contract was signed between the Village of Rochester and Avon Township, where the Township Board agreed to pay for half the cost of a new fire engine and pay half the man-hours and the cost for the upkeep and maintaining the department during the year. Because of World War II, this new fire truck could not be purchased until 1945. The only new piece of apparatus purchased during the War was by the National Twist Drill at Tienken and Rochester Roads, who were able to purchase a new fire truck to protect their manufacturing operation, because of its importance to the war effort. This 1942 Mack type 75 fire truck was housed by the Rochester Fire Department and was able to respond to other emergency calls. By 1945, federal restrictions were lifted on purchasing new fire trucks and a Mack type 85 was purchased equally by the Village and the Township. It was the Mack type 85, triple combination pumper, with a 1000 GPM pump (high-pressure fog-type) and a 1000 gallon water tank.

Avon Township Organizes Two Fire Departments


After World War II, two new fire departments organized in Avon Township. The Brooklands Fire Department was organized on Auburn Road east of Rochester Road and the Avondale Fire Department organized on Auburn Road west of Rochester Road.

During World War II a huge migration of workers settled in Avon Township working in the factories of Pontiac and Detroit. The Brooklands subdivision in the southeast corner of the Township was so large that the Rochester Clarion newspaper treated it like a small nearby town and began a separate section in the paper devoted to it.

The Brooklands area suffered heavily from fire damage in its early days and by 1945, the Brooklands Fire Department had built a fire station and purchased a medium size fire engine.

The Avondale subdivision in the southwest corner of Avon Township inspired the creation of the Avondale Fire Department. Throughout the 1940s-1970s the Brooklands, Avondale, and Rochester Fire Departments were operated as independent fire departments. While the Brooklands and Avondale Fire Departments covered the southern half of Avon Township, the Rochester Fire Department protected the northern half and most of Oakland Township.

In 1975, the Brooklands and Avondale Fire Departments merged to create the Avon Township Fire Department. Mark Belkoff, an Avondale Firefighter, Navy Veteran, and GM Plant protection employee was hired as the first chief. He served as the Chief until 1996. Additional Stations were built in the north end of Avon Township to further protect our community and neighboring Oakland Township. The Meadowbrook Station was built in 1976 at Walton and Adams Road and the Stoney Creek station was built in 1981 at Rochester and Tienken Roads. The final fire station - Station One - was built in the center of our community in 1988.

The Avon Township Fire Department became the Rochester Hills Fire Department in November, 1984 when our community officially changed names and government style from a Township to a City. The Five stations are strategically located in the City and still bear the historic names of the areas they represent:

Station 1 Administration
Station 2 Brooklands
Station 3 Avondale
Station 4 Meadowbrook
Station 5 Stoney Creek

Today, the history and commitment to fire protection remains strong in our community. We are still served by residents who care deeply about the safety and protection of our residents, guests, and their property. The Rochester Hills Fire Department still works closely with the Rochester Fire Department and our surrounding communities sharing equipment, training, and ideas to ensure that our firefighters and residents are kept safe and secure.

Today, the Rochester Hills Fire Department has 60 paid-on-call and 26 full-time firefighters providing basic and advanced life support and fire protection of our community.

And it all started in May, 1895 in a hotel in downtown Rochester.

Sources:
This history is extensively taken from The Rochester Fire Department, A Centennial History, 1895-1995 written by William A. Cahill. This book is available for purchase at the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Special thanks to Pete Zell, former Avon Township and Rochester Hills Firefighter now proudly serving as a Firefighter in Florida, for his memories and documentation of the Avon Township and Rochester Hills Fire Departments.

To learn more about the fascinating history of our community, visit the Rochester Hills Museum web site at www.rochesterhills.org/museum.

Rochester Hills Fire Chiefs
1984 - 1996 Mark Belkoff
1996 - 2002 William Thornton
2002 - 2005 Gregory Walterhouse
2005 - 2013 Ronald Crowell
2014 - Present Sean Canto


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