Westport’s fire department is older than Westport itself.
The volunteer Saugatuck Fire Company was incorporated in 1832 — 3 years before the town did the same. Equipment consisted of one hand engine.
In 1859, Westporters formed Compo Engine Company #2. Almost immediately they saved a lumber yard and adjoining buildings, when a candle factory caught fire.
Five years later Vigilant Engine Company #3 was organized on Wilton Road, in part because of the Post Road drawbridge. When it was up, engines could not cross the river.
The Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road, circa 1977.
Main Street, Pioneer Hook & Ladder, and the Saugatuck Hose Company followed.
In the early 1900s E.T. Bedford donated money and land for the Greens Farms Company. After World War II, the Coleytown Company was formed to serve that rapidly expanding part of town.
All those firefighters were volunteers.
The career department was established in 1929, with 2 paid firefighters. The first paid chief was hired in 1937.
But volunteers served vital functions, particularly as the town grew.
Gradually, volunteer companies folded. The only firehouses that remain — besides the Post Road headquarters — are on Riverside Avenue, Easton Road and Center Street. All are staffed by career firefighters.
The Saugatuck firehouse. The sign still says “Hose Co.”
Volunteers remain active. They’re still important.
But their numbers are dwindling.
Westport has changed. There are more dual-income families, greater demands on time, fewer blue-collar folks residents. At the same time, training demands have increased. Minimum state certification requires 180 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction, plus 24 hours riding a truck every 3 months.
The trend is nationwide.
But Westport needs its volunteers. With so many large and expensive homes, 2 bustling commercial districts, the Post Road, many offices, 3 beaches, Longshore, I-95, the Merritt Parkway and Metro-North, our very professional and well-respected career fire department has a lot to handle.
Westport firefighters respond to 3,500 calls a year — nearly 10 a day. They include not only fires, but medical calls, motor vehicle accidents, odors, and much more.
Ken Gilbertie is a volunteer. Since joining in the early 1980s, he’s risen to the role of deputy chief of the Westport Volunteer Fire Department. He’s also a civilian dispatcher. He loves what he does.
And he’d like some help.
Ken Gilbertie, at his dispatch station.
“We don’t need muscle power,” the native Westporter says. “Just able-bodied people willing to do hard work.”
There’s no pay. In fact, volunteers must purchase their own protective equipment. Boots, pants, a coat, helmet and gloves can run $1700. The money comes in part from a townwide fundraiser.
What volunteers get is “a load of satisfaction. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve made a significant contribution to someone, on their worst day,” Gilbertie says.
Donna Cohen is a volunteer too. The PR executive and event planner walked in one day and asked how she could help.
“There’s a real team feeling with volunteers,” she notes. “There’s a social aspect too. This is such a good way to give back to the community.”
You know — the community that had not even been named nearly 2 centuries ago, when our first volunteer firefighters banded together to help their neighbors.
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No, these firefighters are not posing for the camera during an actual fire. It’s training, using a house that would be torn down. It was donated for the exercise.