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The History Of The Kansas City Fire Department

Kansas City Irish Fest

Fire can take your life, your home, your car, and your loved ones before you know it. For a century and a half, a certain kind of person has signed up to fight fire in Kansas City, and to try to keep catastrophe at bay. On Central Standard Friday, we’ll talk about fire – the kind of fire that has destroyed buildings and lives – as well as the firefighters whose job it has been to minimize the damage. From the bucket brigades of pre-Civil War days to the modern, sophisticated machinery of today, the Kansas City Fire Department has had to endure and adapt to battling brutal blazes and blistering budgets. We’ll learn about the rich history of fire and firefighting in our town and how it's shaped our development.

On March 14th, 1868 at 4:56 PM, Kansas City's first Fire Chief, Francis Foster, became the owner of the John Campbell Steamer No. 1, and thus, a fire department was born. The first fire engines consisted of large tubes where steam erupted from. A separate truck had the hoses. Both trucks were pulled by a team of horses which then had to be safely removed from the scene of the fire once they arrived. 

From 1882 to 1902, the KCFD entered its most famous period under the direction of fire chief George C. Hale. They won the a firemen competition in both London and Paris and became world-renowned. According to Ray Elder, the fire department historian, the King of Scotland placed a reward for any fire department that could outperform the KCFD. The reward was never claimed. Fire Chief George C. Hale can also lay claim to over 50 different patents related to firefighting including a horse harness that allowed horses to be connected to the fire trucks in less than 15 seconds-- a world record!

Chief George Hale was also around for Kansas City's first major fire at the Coates Opera House in 1901. The cause of the fire was never determined, but that's because there wasn't a trace of anything left. It left Kansas City without a first-rate playhouse, so the Willis Wood Theatre opened up next door in 1902. It too would burn down, fifteen years later, in 1917.

Some of Kansas City's most notable fires also include one from 1959 when a Conoco filling station caught on fire, killing five fire fighters.

Kansas City's deadliest fire occurred on January 28th, 1978, at the Coates House Hotel in Quality Hill. 20 hotel patrons died in the blaze. In 1984, the hotel was rebuilt and restored to its former glory. 

There are far too many stories and incidents to cover here, but check out the Kansas City Retired Fire Fighters Association for a complete history or the Kansas City Fire Museum at Union Station where you can see cool photos like this:

Credit KC Irish Fest
The KCFD would employ watchboys to look for smoke and sparks. Circa 1898.


  • Jimmy Walker, Vice President of the KC Fire Historical Society, Current Battalion Chief
  • Ray Elder, Fire Department Historian
  • Matthew Stigall, Political and Legislative Business Agent IAFF Local 42
Matthew Long-Middleton has been a talk-show producer, community producer, Media Training Manager and now the Community Engagement Manager at KCUR. You can reach him at Matthew@kcur.org, or on Twitter @MLMIndustries.
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