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History of Firefighting

From the earliest times of permanent settlements in Forsyth County, the importance of firefighting and fire prevention has been given significant attention. Though fires have certainly occurred over time, Salem and Winston have often been at the leading edge in the ability to fight fires and, more recently, to respond to medical emergencies when they do happen.

Not long after the first buildings were completed in Salem, the church community made a plan for handling fires, thereby creating the Salem Fire Department in 1772, just a year after the wood-frame Salem Tavern opened for business. In 1782, the town set up a Fire Inspector’s Committee to try to assure that chimneys were swept and fires were watched.

“Wood shingle roofs were the biggest fire hazard in this small community,” a fire department history noted. “It was not uncommon for embers from open flame fireplaces to ignite the roof.”

It took the first significant recorded fire, though, to encourage further changes. In early 1784, the wood Salem Tavern, on the edge of town, caught fire and burned to the ground.

Though the town replaced the structure with a new structure that was nearly entirely brick on the exterior, the problems of fighting fires – despite the innovative waterworks built in town in 1778 – became even clearer. Leather fire buckets, bought for $1 apiece from Philadelphia, were distributed throughout the community. Soon, Salem became one of the few towns in the young nation to own a manual fire pump, which could be carried to the scene of a fire and loaded with water by a “bucket brigade.”

In the earliest years, if the fire inspector found a fire hazard, the responsible citizen was fined $1 a day – a measurable amount in the 1700s – until the hazard was corrected. As a result, Salem remained a fairly fire-free community well into the 1800s.

In 1849, however, Forsyth County and the new county seat of Winston came into existence. A volunteer fire department for Winston faced similar problems, and fought fires in the same fashion.

As Winston grew in population and in the number of retail and industrial businesses, however, the need for a full-time firefighting unit increased daily. In 1876, the VFD gave way to the Winston Fire Department. Six years later, a LaFrance Steam Fire Engine was bought for $3800. The department housed it on the east side of Liberty Street.

At that time, when the fire bell rang in town, the specific ring would tell listeners which of the four wards was victim of the fire.

The first known mention of a fire fighter being paid came in 1886, when WFD Captain Gates asked the city to pay $2 per fireman for service at each fire.

In 1913, when the towns of Salem and Winston merged, the city’s first full-time, paid fire chief was hired to oversee the new Winston-Salem Fire Department. Earlier, in summer 1912, the city’s first motorized fire engine had been ordered from American LaFrance, at a cost of $9000. It went into service in spring 1913 at Fire Station #2. That station also hosted the first full-time paid firefighters, with a starting salary of $35 per month.

Volunteer fire departments were formed to serve Salem and Columbia Heights, which include the black community, until 1923, when the city opened additional fire stations.

By 1949, firemen were being paid $184 per month, and in 1951, the first African American fire station was established. By 1964, the ninth fire station in the city arrived; by the mid-1980s, there were sixteen.

According to a report in 2000, firefighting in Winston-Salem had advanced to include 18 stations, 285 employees, aerial ladders, defibrillators, modern communications equipment and ever-changing safety and fire suppression gear.

While preventing and controlling fires remained the main task, as the department entered the 21st century, aiding in the medical emergencies often related to automotive accidents and any structural fire had been added to the training and assignments of the modern firefighter. It’s a job that remains vitally important to the city and county as a whole.


Winston-Salem Fire Department, 1913-1992, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, 1992.

Winston-Salem Fire Department: One of Excellence, 87 Years of Outstanding Service, Fine Books Publishing Co., Charlotte, 2000.

Old Salem: The Official Guidebook, Penelope Niven and Cornelia Wright, Old Salem Inc., 2000.

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