The Fire Marshal
by Doug Welch,
Town of Manchester Fire Department Historian and Retired Firefighter

The office of fire marshal is a position which has long been prescribed by law. In Connecticut "cities, boroughs and incorporated fire districts" the fire chief was the fire marshal, and in "towns" the first selectman held the position. Manchester being a 'town' and having a volunteer fire chief, the first selectman originally served as the fire marshal. In 1907, Manchester passed a charter revision. Prior to this, there were three selectmen with one acting as "first selectman". The charter revision provided for an elected board of seven directors, each having the same power. With the loss of the title of 'first selectman', the town directors named the Manchester Chief of Police, John F. Sheridan, as the new fire marshal.

Chief Sheridan initially made a trip around town, looked over the different places and returned with about 200 recommendations. He found that in many of the school houses, the doors opened inward rather than out, and that the same condition existed in many of the churches Also, there were insufficient exits. In hotels in town, he found that none were equipped with proper fire escapes and that there was waste paper being stored in many cellars in the business houses.

When Mr. Sheridan's report was made, some hotels made provisions for taking care of the violations by having hooks placed in the floors under a window with ropes attached. If a person was young enough and was accustomed to climbing down a rope, they could then get out of their room in an emergency. In other places, additional exits were provided. Doors on schools and churches were changed to open outward. Ironically, Manchester town hall was a building where changes were most needed. The changes recommended by Chief Sheridan after his inspection were all taken care of, but follow-up inspections apparently were few.

In 1924 talk had begun about making the fire chief's position an appointed one. It would involve performing duties as the full-time fire chief and fire marshal. The part-time chief at the time, Orion J. Atwood, stated that he would not be interested in the job if he was to give it his entire time and the matter was tabled. The subject came up again in 1925 after the fire commissioners had spent the year grooming Chief Atwood's first assistant chief for the job. The position again was offered to Chief Atwood, whose stand on the subject had not changed. His first assistant chief, Albert Foy, was then asked if he would take the job. Mr. Foy was employed as an instructor at the trade school at the time, but said he would take the job as long as he was not opposing Mr. Atwood. Chief Foy was elected as the first paid fire chief on November 12, 1925 at the annual meeting of the South Manchester fire district. Following his resignation from his position at the trade school and as foreman of Hose Company No. 2, the way was clear and his first term began January 1, 1926.

Town officials agreed with the suggestion of the fire commissioners to appoint the chief of the South Manchester Fire Department as fire marshal of school districts one through seven, which included the entire town with the exception of the eighth district. In the case of the eighth district, the fire chief there already acted as the fire marshal. In order to familiarize himself thoroughly with the duties of fire marshal, Chief Foy spent considerable time in Hartford, where he worked with Chief Moran learning information about the fire chief's work. He was also instructed by Superintendent Robert T. Hartley of the state police, who was the state fire marshal at the time, on the fire marshal duties.

The work of the fire marshal was to remove, as much as possible, all fire hazards, and Chief Foy stated he expected to receive the cooperation of the property owners in this endeavor. He performed an initial inspection after he took office and within his first year about one half of the work he recommended had been accomplished. He stated that he was getting full cooperation from the property owners. In addition to the addition of fire exits and changing doors to open out, a knowledge of the construction of factories and business places was obtained and tabulated on forms to be furnished to the four fire companies.

Much work was done upgrading the water system as well. Thirty-five hydrants were added and pipes were rerouted to eliminate dead-ends and promote better water flow. Several new alarm boxes were to be added the following year. In Chief Foy's first year, the fire loss in South Manchester was less than $5,000 while the grand list totaled almost $40,000,000!

April, 2008