The Barnwell Fire Department was officially established in 1919. Preceding the establishment of an organized fire department, firefighting was performed in a fashion similar to a fire brigade using buckets and water and this effort was led by Mr. E. F. Woodard. The streets of the town had large barrels of water placed strategically throughout for firefighting use along with buckets for moving the water from the barrels to the fire. With the establishment of the Barnwell Fire Department in 1919 the town provided firefighting equipment and appointed the leadership for the department.The first Fire Chief was Mr. J. J. Vickery with Mr. E. F. Woodard as Assistant Chief.
The first Fire Station was located near the town circle with in a tin building next to the Molair Theater. The station was a shed style building with doors and it housed a hand pulled hose reel. Through the years an additional hand pulled hose reel and a hand pulled ladder wagon were purchased to meet the firefighting needs. The location of the first fire station is within 500 feet of where the present fire station exists today. For a period of time the town sanctioned and supported two fire departments, one department with white membership and another with black membership. Mr. E. W. “Big Boy” Reed served as Captain of the black department until his death. Both departments shared the station and firefighting equipment. This was typical throughout small towns in the south for several years. At the death of Chief J. J. Vickery in 1927, the town council appointed Mr. L. C. Vickery Sr. as Fire Chief. At the death of Assistant Chief E. F. Woodard the town council appointed Mr. J. E. “Coconut” Davis as Assistant Chief. Both of these men served their position until 1972. During their tenure the existing hand pulled hose reels and ladder wagon were adapted to permit automobiles to pull them as the automobile became the primary means of transportation.
The method of firefighting using hose reels and a ladder wagon depended largely on the existence of the fire hydrants and water system installed throughout the town along the same time the first hose reel was purchased. The practice of applying water on the fire consisted of connecting fire hose from the fire hydrant to the fire and placing a nozzle on the end of the hose nearest the fire. The fire hydrant was turned on and water filled the hose. The water pressure was increased by a steam pump located at the town water plant on the east end of Washington Street. Communication to the water plant was either by runner or by the use of a neighbor’s telephone to whose house was burning. To sound the alarm for a fire a steam operated siren was used. This siren was built by the first Fire Chief Mr. J. J. Vickery and it was piped into the steam boiler at the water plant on the east end of Washington Street. The water plant operator would sound the siren upon notification of a fire and volunteer firemen would either call the water plant for information on the location of the fire or travel the town looking for signs of smoke or fire. Upon the placement of an elevated water tower at the water plant the steam boiler was removed and a new electric siren was placed upon the water tower. At the end of World War II the steam siren was installed on a steam boiler at the Bush & Usury Saw Mill located on Charles Street for the purpose of sounding a celebration of victory along with all the church bells during Victory in Japan Day. It was said that the sound of the steam siren could be heard in areas ten miles from Barnwell.
During the Vickery, Davis tenure the department purchased its first motorized fire apparatus in 1933. This apparatus was manufactured by the American La France company and was capable of pumping 500 gallons per minute in addition to carrying fire hose, ladders and equipment. The apparatus was built on a Chevrolet truck chassis and had an open cab. Mr. Clyde Vickery and Mr. Lloyd Plexico were the two engineers assigned to operate the new fire truck. During the day this fire truck was parked under a large oak tree on a corner lot where the fire station exist today and each night it was placed inside the Vickery Brothers Garage located on the corner of Washington and Burr Streets. This arrangement served as the fire station location until the existing station was built in 1954. With the use of the motorized fire apparatus the existing hose reels and ladder wagon were soon retired and sent to the water plant for storage where through the years they deteriorated and were eventually gone.
In the years 1953 and 1954 the fire department had an eventful period. First was an order of its second piece of motorized fire apparatus at a cost of $ 17,000.00. The apparatus was a 700 Series Pumper manufactured by American La France Foamite Corporation. Built in Elmira, New York it took nearly one year build and was delivered by train to Barnwell where it was unloaded on the Southern Railway Depot between Main Street and Hagood Avenue. This truck was temporarily housed in a shop building behind Chief L. C. Vickery’s home on Main Street until the construction of the new City Hall, Police and Fire Station was complete at the corner of Washington and Burr Streets. This truck is still in operation today as a fire prevention and parade unit and is affectionately known as “Big Bertha”. Finally an unfortunate accident took place during this time resulting in the destruction of the first motorized fire truck purchased by the town. While responding to a fire in the 1933 model fire truck Mr. Frank Kirkland who worked near the fire station and assigned to drive the fire truck when an alarm was received was severely injured in a vehicle accident. The fire truck rolled over upon impact with another vehicle at the intersection of Washington Street and Marlboro Avenue. Immediately after the accident the town purchased a new truck chassis from the local International Truck dealership, Manning-Westbrook. Under the leadership of Assistant Chief J. E. “Coconut” Davis the fire pump and hose body of the wrecked truck were salvaged and placed on the new truck chassis. This combination of a new chassis and old pump and hose body was placed into service where it remained until retired in 1995.
During this period construction of the Savannah River Plant “Bomb Plant” was well under way. The fire truck accident happened prior to the scheduled delivery of the recently ordered fire truck and left the town with out fire protection. The department with the assistance of the Savannah River Plant placed into service a van to use a hose wagon and a 2000 gallon water tanker for several weeks until the new fire truck ordered a year earlier was received. Upon completion of construction of the new City Hall, Police & Fire Station the first paid firemen were employed by the town. Mr. Frank Kirkland was First Engineer and Mr. Albert Elkins was the First Assistant Engineer. These men lived at the new station when on duty.
In 1972 Chief L. C. Vickery Sr. and Assistant Chief J. E. “Coconut” Davis retired and the City appointed W. H. Dicks Jr. as Fire Chief and L. C. Vickery Jr. as Assistant Chief. During their tenure the electric siren used to alert volunteer firemen was replaced by a more effective group alert telephone system and it was used for several years until it was replaced by an even more effective radio pager system still in use today. In 1973 the department ordered its third fire apparatus at a cost of $ 40,000.00. The apparatus was a Pioneer II Series Pumper manufactured by the American La France Corporation. It was capable of pumping 1250 gallons per minute, carried 750 gallons of water as well as hose and equipment. Upon its delivery the truck was displayed at the Annual Convention of the South Carolina State Firemen’s Association held in Beaufort, SC in June of 1974. The truck is still in service today. Upon the delivery of the third fire truck the fire station was enlarged to accommodate a third apparatus bay and kitchen area. In 1977 the Barnwell County Council provided a 1000 gallon tanker truck made from military surplus to support the efforts of the City to protect residences in the unincorporated area. This was the County Government’s first contribution toward rural fire protection which the municipal government had provided for nearly forty five years. Today the County Government provides for and operates a rural fire protection program for the property owners in the unincorporated areas.
In 1979 W. H. Dicks Jr. retired from the department with twenty years service as a volunteer fireman and seven years as the volunteer Fire Chief. Chief W. H. Dicks later served on the Barnwell County Fire Commission representing the Barnwell Fire Department and later was placed into the South Carolina Firefighters Hall of Fame in 2006. In 1979 City Council appointed L. C. Vickery Jr. as Fire Chief. Chief Vickery later became the City’s first paid Fire Chief. During his tenure some first for the department took place such as the first Fire Chief’s car and the first Service Truck. In 1987 the department ordered its fourth fire apparatus at a cost of $125,000.00. The apparatus was a Sentinel Series Pumper manufactured by FMC Corporation on a GMC chassis. It was capable of pumping 1250 gallons per minute, carried 1000 gallons of water as well as hose and equipment. As with the 1974 model fire truck this truck was also displayed at the Annual Convention of the South Carolina State Firemen’s Association held in Myrtle Beach, SC upon its delivery. This truck is still in service today. With the addition of this and other equipment the fire station was enlarged to add two more apparatus bays.
In 1994 L. C. Vickery Jr. retired from the department with thirty seven years of service as a volunteer fireman and fifteen years service as Fire Chief. In 1994 City Council appointed Charles W. Epps as Fire Chief. Charles Epps was employed by the department as a Firefighter Engineer before taking over as Fire Chief. In 1999 Charles Epps retired from the department which he served five years as Fire Chief.