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It is estimated, the first fire department in Wilson was organized around 1880 and was completely volunteer. Fire protection at this time consisted of the bucket brigade until the year 1887. In early 1887, a steam pumper was purchased, which was horse drawn, and water to supply this pumper was taken from cisterns located in the streets. The steamer was a Silsby 5th Size, registration #914. 5th size meant it pumped between 300 and 500 gpm.The first cistern was located on N. Goldsboro St. in front of what is now the Woodard Building . The first fire station was located on N. Goldsboro St. where the parking lot adjacent to the Municipal Building is now located.
A major improvement in fire fighting occurred in 1892. A small pump station was installed on Toisnot Creek, at the present location of the bridge across the creek on Corbett Ave. Hydrants and mains were installed but water was not purified and was used only for fire protection.
In 1913, the first motorized pumping engine was purchased from the American-LaFrance Company of Elmira, NY.
To drive and maintain this vehicle, Captain L.F. Murray was hired from Goldsboro to become the first paid fireman in Wilson . He remained with the department until his death in 1934.
Wilson FD had two companies at the fire station located at City Hall. It housed the Chief, Assistant Chief, two paid men, and 20 volunteers. Two American LaFrance triple combination motor trucks each with 750-gallon chemical tank and 1,200 feet of 2 1/2-hose. 1,800 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose in reserve. Reo motor truck equipped as hook and ladder planned.
Colored Company, no firehouse: One paid man, 12 volunteers. Gamewell fire alarm system with 24 boxes and bell at pumping plant. Alarm given by bell on City Hall and whistle at municipal light plant. Population 12,000.
In 1924, fire destroyed the fire station and the old city hall located then on Goldsboro St . A new station was built in 1926 on N. Douglas St . In 1985, a new headquarters station was built at 307 W. Hines St.
The first organized department manned by paid uniformed firemen was organized on August 1, 1938 . There was 11 full time men and 26 call men – volunteers who received a small monthly salary whether or not the fought any fire. The new department was equipped with four trucks, three were pumpers and one a ladder truck.
Some of the first known fire chiefs to serve Wilson were Billy Simms, Earnest Nadal, Doane Herring, Ed W. Davis, and V.C. Martin who were all volunteers.
In 1938, A.L. Lancaster, who had been a volunteer chief since 1931, was appointed as the first paid chief and served until his death in 1949. July 1, 1949 , T.R. Bissett was named chief and remained until his retirement in July, 1971. In July 1971, Ben Williams was appointed chief until he retired in 1985. C.B. Rose was named chief in 1985 and served until he retired in Dec., 1991. Don Oliver was then hired as chief in March, 1992 and served until he retired in September, 2017. Currently Albert Alston serves as the Wilson Fire/Rescue Service Fire Chief.
Wilson firemen and American LaFrance fire engines. Courtesy Wilson Fire Department Wilson municipal complex including fire station. Courtesy North Carolina State Archives
The first piece of fire apparatus bought by the City of Wilson was painted battleship gray with gold trim. This color remained until 1939 when it was changed to red and continued until 1973, when it was replaced by lime yellow. The greatest change in fire trucks came about in 1973, with the purchase of Wilson ‘s first truck with an enclosed cab, which could seat five men. This unit was the first truck painted lime yellow and also the first to have a diesel engine, air brakes, and power steering.
The City of Wilson maintains through Wilson Fire/Rescue Services fire stations, 20 emergency response apparatus, and 93 career firefighters protecting 29.2 square miles. Our current population is just over 50,000.
In 1992 the Wilson Fire Department underwent a significant change in leadership. For the first time, since it became a career fire department in 1938, a new Fire Chief was hired, who did not come from within the organization. As an effort to help create a new organizational identity and culture, the new chief asked for volunteers for a Task Force with representation from all ranks of the organization. Their charge… develop a symbol for use as a uniform shoulder patch and apparatus door emblem that would represent the pledge of the department’s mission.
Through effective communication, collaboration, cooperation and compromise a symbol was developed from the many ideas and samples that were developed by individuals on this team. The symbolic details of this emblem represent the values, goals and the vision that the members had. The meaning was explained when it was presented to the Chief. It is now a very important part of the identity of the organization and its membership.
- The Maltese Cross Shape – represents a universal symbol for Fire Departments that value the tradition of protection and service to others, at all costs, as the Knights of Malta historically did.
- The Rope Trim – displays no beginning or end…symbolizing continuous service to the community.
- The Background – incorporates red white and blue “stars and stripes” displays the patriotism of the American Fire Service and the love of our country. The words FIRE and RESCUE are vertically displayed on the background field representing an all-encompassing service.
- The Center Shield – presents a protective armor that safeguards the community. The words Protection, Inspection, Prevention are inscribed on around the Firefighting Cluster of tools used in fire suppression. The crossed tools overlay the flames of fire.
- The Tree and Tobacco Leafs – integrates two components of the City of Wilson Official Seal . The City of Wilson is distinguished as a “City of Trees ” . Tobacco holds a prominent place in the history of the city, which was once the “Largest Tobacco Market in the World”
- The Phoenix – is rising from the flames, indicating a reformation of the organization.
Following the development of the organizational symbol… the organization was renamed to reflect the department’s mission and values. Thus becoming—
Wilson Fire/Rescue Services
Albert L. Lancaster
City of Wilson Fire Chief
1938 – 1949
Albert L. Lancaster became a member of the all volunteer fire department in 1917. He rose up through the ranks and became the Fire Chief in the 1920’s. Chief Lancaster served in this role until 1933. Albert Lancaster was the President of A L Lancaster Plumbing Company and his office was located in the city market and municipal building which also housed the fire station. When the city market was damaged by fire in 1924, Chief Lancaster was charged with finding a suitable location for a new fire station and improving the department. Chief Lancaster proposed building the new fire station at 209 Douglas Street South. A piece of property the Chief Lancaster and his wife just happen to own. Chief Lancaster may have been planning to build a house on this lot until he sold it to the city. In 1925 Chief Lancaster had a house built at 206 Raleigh Rd. It was designed by S. B Moore and constructed by Samuel Winstead. The new fire station was completed and opened in 1926 with new modern equipment and improvements to the fire alarm system. In 1933 the city of Wilson changed to a city manager form of government and Chief Lancaster resigned his position. The new city manager just so happen to be a plumbing contractor and some say the two did not get along. In 1938 the city of Wilson started its first paid fire department. Albert L. Lancaster was hired as its first paid Fire Chief along with 10 other paid firemen. Chief Lancaster served in this position until his death in 1949.
Tyrus R. Bissett
City of Wilson Fire Chief
1949 – 1971
On August 1, 1938 Tyrus Bissett was one of the first eleven paid firemen to be hired with the Wilson Fire Department. Chief Bissette served as an Assistant Fire Chief until 1949. Upon the death of Fire Chief A. L. Lancaster, Bissett was appointed as The City of Wilson’s Fire Chief. Chief Bissett was very progressive for his time and was an advocate for fire prevention. He believed in the “ounce of prevention” adage and started Wilson’s first fire prevention bureau in 1967. As the city became larger Chief Bissett strived to keep the department up to date. He oversaw the building of three additional fire stations. Station #2 was constructed in 1952, followed by Station #3 in 1956 and Station #4 in 1964. He was also responsible for building the Wilson Fire Training Center at the end of Pine Street and establishing a relationship with Wilson Community College. Wilson became known as one of the “BEST” fire training centers in the southeast. During his tenure he served as the president of the North Carolina Fireman’s Association. Chief Bissett proudly served the City of Wilson until his retirement in 1971.
Chief Bissett spent his retirement years in his home on Monticello Drive in Wilson that he had purchased in 1953. He pasted from this life in 2002 and is buried in Maplewood Cemetery across the street from the Wilson Fire Training Center he had built in the early 1960s.
City of Wilson Fire Chief
1971 – 1985
Ben Williams began his firefighting career in 1952. Ben was promoted from the rank of Firefighter/Private to Fire Captain in May of 1956. In June of 1967, he was promoted to the rank of 1st Assistant Chief. On July 1, 1971 Assistant Chief Williams was named Fire Chief, replacing retiring Chief Tyrus Bissett. Ben remained in the Chief’s role until his retirement in 1985. During his tenure a fifth fire station was constructed in the Hackney Industrial Park and an 85′ ft platform Snorkl was purchased by the department. The department increased to 82 personnel and staffed seven engines and a ladder truck. In December 1973, under Chief Williams leadership, Wilson was the first fire department in the state of North Carolina, to change the color of their fire trucks from traditional fire engine red to lime yellow. After a visibility study conducted for the fire service in 1972, proved that the color “Lime Yellow” was most visible in all lighting conditions. It was believed that accidents involving fire apparatus would decline if fire trucks were easier to see.
Chief Williams retired in Wilson and spend many years enjoying his golf passion. He and his wife Joy resided in the Wilson Country Club subdivision. He passed away in 2005 and is buried in Maplewood Cemetery across from the WF/RS Training Center.
Calvin Bruce Rose
City of Wilson Fire Chief
1985 – 1991
Chief C. “Bruce” Rose’s career began in 1961 as a Wilson firefighter. He was promoted from Firefighter/Private to Fire Captain on November 1, 1968. In May, 1974, Captain Rose was appointed as the Training Supervisor by Chief Williams. In August of 1981, he was selected for promotion to Assistant Chief for the duties of the department’s Administrative Officer/Assistant to the Chief. He served in this capacity until May 1, 1985, when Assistant Chief Rose was named Fire Chief. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1991.
During his first year as Chief of the department, Chief Rose oversaw the relocation and construction of Fire Headquarters Station (#1). The old headquarters station on Douglas Street had been opened in 1926 and had been out dated and out grown. The new modern and larger Headquarters Station is located at 307 Hines Street, West and has served the city well with its crew quarters and administrative offices. Chief Rose was also responsible for the relocation of Fire Station #2 from Fairview Avenue to the 1800 block of Forest Hills Road. Chief Rose was instrumental in reestablishing and developing an educational relationship and supporting the Fire Science program between the WFD and Wilson Technical Institute (late became Wilson Community College). Chief Rose completed his AAS in Fire Science from Wilson Technical Institute and was also awarded the Municipal Administration Certificate from the Institute of Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1987.
After completing his career with the Fire Department, retired Chief Rose ran a very successful campaign for the Office of Mayor of Wilson. He took office in 1992 and currently holds that office as one of the longest service Mayors in the city’s history.
Donald R. Oliver
City of Wilson Fire Chief
1992 – 2017
Chief Don Oliver began his career as a firefighter with the Wichita Kansas Fire Department in March 1967. He served as a firefighter, fire apparatus driver, District Chief’s Aide and Rescue Squad member during his tenure. He resigned from WFD in March 1973 to become a member of the Thornton, Colorado Fire Department (1973-1992) his ranks included Firefighter, Firefighter Specialist/Engineer, Fire Lieutenant, Training Officer, Assistant Fire Chief and Chief of the Department. He has served as the Chief of the Wilson Fire/Rescue Service (North Carolina) since March of 1992.
Chief Oliver is considered to be a bleeding-edge leader and advocate for the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for firefighter safety. He has been an invited speaker at numerous conferences including, the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Homeland Security Summit, International Crime Mapping Research Conference, IAFC-Microsoft Fire Service Technology Symposium and the Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).
During his tenure the WF/RS has undergone many significant changes. In 1993 the fire apparatus colors were changed back to the traditional red with white tops. Rapid Response Teams (Squads w/2 Firefighters) were initiated to respond to the increasing number of Emergency Medical calls in the city. In 1994, Wilson Fire Department became Wilson Fire/Rescue Services (WF/RS) and adopted the motto “Dedicated to Life Safety”. Stations #3 & #5 were relocated to better serve the community in 1995. A Firefighter Apprentice program and a regional Fire/Rescue Training Academy were developed through a partnership with Wilson Community College in 1994. The Fire Prevention Bureau was expanded with the number of full time inspectors increasing from 2 to 5. A Fire & Life Safety Educator was added in 1998 and the WF/RS Fire & Life Safety Adventure House was opened in 2009. WF/RS received the Accredited Fire Department status in 2002 and was reaccredited in 2007 and improved the Insurance Services Office (ISO) fire protection rating to a Class 2.
Chief Oliver served as the chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Fire Prevention Committee, a member of the IAFC Technology Council. He received the 2000 IAFC President’s Award and the IAFC 1996 Top Recruiter Award. Chief Oliver and 14 other national fire service leaders were invited to the White House on April 19, 1999 to meet with President William J. Clinton. He is a Charter Member of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers (NSEFO), and served as NSEFO President (1996-2006). He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). He also served for 12 years as a member of the Board of Visitors for the National Fire Academy (1996-2008).
Chief Oliver graduated from Columbia College (Missouri) with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Individual Studies with a concentration in fire service administration. He was a 1988 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), a 1990 graduate of the Management Excellence Program from the Center for Public Service at University of Virginia, a member of The Institution of Fire Engineers (UK), and attained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the Commission on Professional Credentialing from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2002.