Fire Department History
In 1889, the population of Madisonville, KY was approximately 2,300. At that time, there wasn’t even enough interest in fire protection among the citizens of Madisonville, KY to raise $50.00 to buy some buckets and ladders for the downtown area. This changed in the late 1890’s and early 1900 when numerous areas in the town were destroyed by fire. Seventeen buildings were destroyed by a fire that occurred in March, 1901.
On August 9, 1911, the City Council met in special session and passed an ordinance for the creation of the Madisonville Fire Department. Each member was to receive one dollar for each fire and an additional fifty cents an hour thereafter. At that time, Robert Harned was appointed to serve as Volunteer Fire Chief. During his administration, Chief Harned led a force of six firefighters and served until 1926 when at that time Chief J.Y. Farmer was appointed. On January 10, 1928, he placed in service a new American La France 1,000 gallon per minute pumper. The purchase price was $13,000. “Big Mama” was taken out of service in the early 1960’s and is currently on display at the Main Fire Station located on Center St. Chief Farmer served the citizens of Madisonville until he retired in 1930.
By the early 1930’s, the town of Madisonville had outgrown its volunteer fire department and city leaders were looking to secure a suitable fire rating to lower insurance costs. On September 15, 1936, the fire department was fully organized, thus classifying it as a paid department. B. K. Tombs became the first Chief of the new full time department. This also brought the need for an additional apparatus. Chief Tombs Chassis and the fireman built the pumper themselves.
The Department was located in a new facility, erected in 1936 in connection with the Works Progress Administration. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a relief measure established in 1935 by executive order as the Works Progress Administration. It offered work to the unemployed on an unprecedented scale by spending money on a wide variety of programs, including highways and building construction, slum clearance, reforestation, and rural rehabilitation. This stimulated private business during the depression and inaugurated reforms that states had been unable to subsidize. The station was located on East Center Street where the former City Hall Building was located and where the Police Department now resides. Chief Tombs served the citizens of Madisonville until he retired in June, 1956 when Assistant Chief Brank McKinsey was appointed.
Chief McKinsey served faithfully until June 9, 1962. On that summer day, he suffered a heart attack while on the scene of a house fire on East Noel Ave. This was the first recorded death of a Madisonville firefighter. He remained the only line of duty death the department had seen until October 9, 2002 when Captain Kenneth Taylor became the second to fall while fighting an apartment fire on outer West Noel Ave.
Wallace Curneal became chief the next year. Chief Curneal served from March 1963 – February 1970 and was credited with the planning and construction of Station Two located at 99 East McLaughlin Ave. The building was originally an old store and was addition to the building to make it suitable to house both firefighters and their truck.
In February 1970, Howard F. Renfro was named Chief of Madisonville Fire Department and started his reign as the longest serving Chief of the Department since its conception. Under his watch, a third station was put into service in 1973 in the growing industrial section of the city. Several large fires occurred during this time including, Madisonville Recapping on Federal Street in November 1973, Fowler-Turner on North Kentucky Avenue in October 1974 and again in May of 1977. U.C. Milk Company on North Scott Street sustained heavy fire damage just two days before Christmas in 1972. February 1977 brought the destruction of the Madisonville Christian School on Princeton Road and Jere’s Department Store Warehouse on West Center Street burned in November of 1979. Shortly thereafter a large downtown fire destroyed Hale Brother’s Furniture. The plume of smoke could be seen for miles.
In 1983, the Fire Department was relocated from the aging facility on Center Street to a temporary station on Branch Street. A new downtown station began construction at its present location and was completed in 1985. This was just in time for the Madisonville Wal-Mart fire that occurred on Halloween night 1986. Firefighters were on the scene for days following the large fire that began in a void above the sprinklered portion of the structure and ended in the loss of the entire building.
As Chief Renfro’s term neared its end, he reorganized the department’s two platoons into three and changed his firefighters work schedule to what it is today. He retired on December 1, 1991 after a career of 39 years in the Department with 21 of those years in the Chief’s position.
In December of 1991 Glendel Rice, a Captain in the Fire Prevention Bureau, was appointed as Chief of the Department. Chief Rice saw to the construction of the latest station on the North side of town, Station Four. Total cost of the North side Municipal Complex was just shy of one million dollars and was dedicated in honor of previous Chief Howard F. Renfro on November 1, 1992. Chief Rice also placed the city’s first set of “Jaw’s of Life” in service late in 1995. It is still in use today. He served faithfully until he retired in 1998.
Upon Chief Rice’s retirement, Major Billy Curneal was appointed to lead the Department in 1998. Chief Curneal was a descendant of previous Chief Wallace Curneal and he was credited for placing into service, the city’s first thermal imaging camera. This life saving device allowed firefighters for the first time to “see” through the smoke for faster rescue of trapped victims in a fire. Chief Curneal was also responsible for the official retirement of “Big Mama” and its current display located in front of station one.
Chief Curneal retired the next year when Captain Thomas Williams was appointed Madisonville Fire Chief. Chief Williams served from 1999 to 2006. In December of 2001, with the help of a FEMA Firefighter grant, all of the Fire Department’s aging SCBA’s were replaced with a newer more advanced technological model. He was on duty on November 15, 2005 when an F-4 tornado swept through our community damaging or destroying nearly 500 homes and businesses. All city firefighters reported to work, and with assistance from surrounding communities search and rescue was completed before nightfall. This was the strongest reported tornado in the country in 2005. Chief Williams was also in command of a large industrial fire that occurred on April 6, 2006 at Harrah’s Hose and Hydraulic. The fire was in an advance stage upon Fire Department arrival and had to be fought defensively. Chief Williams retired on August 31, 2006 after 35 years of service.
Major James (Boog) Powell was appointed upon Chief Williams’s retirement to serve as Chief on an interim basis. Chief Powell served for six months, during which he added one new pumper to the fleet, replacing an aging reserve truck. On March 1, 2007 Chief Powell returned to shift and Lieutenant Steven K. Stoltz was named as head of the Department by Mayor William M. Cox Jr.
Under Chief Stoltz’s leadership, the department added a Hazardous Materials response unit, instated department wide standard operating procedures, revamped the department’s hiring process as well as instilling leadership, pride and professionalism in each of its members. The entire department has attained Hazardous Materials Technician training status and a Hazardous Materials response unit has been placed in service. International Fire Service Accreditation Congress Certification of firefighter level I and II have been completed by all but the newest firefighters. A department program has also been implemented to allow employees to attain an Associate’s System.
The Department also became actively involved with the Volunteer Fire Departments in Hopkins County. Chief Stoltz became a member of the Hopkins County Fire Chiefs Association and took an active role in providing training to these Departments. The Madisonville /Hopkins County Fire School has become an annual event currently in it’s fifth year that provides a weekend training in firefighting skills available to all county firefighters.
Firefighter safety has become enhanced by the implementation of on scene RIT (rapid intervention team) and a firefighter’s on scene rehab program. The city’s first “ladder company” was placed into service in the spring of 2010.
The acquisition of “grant” funds for purchasing of updated firefighting tools and equipment was a top priority as well. Nearly $2,000,000.00 in grant funding was acquired since the start of Chief Stoltz’s Administration. This significantly enhanced firefighter safety and effectiveness on the fire ground by providing cutting-edge technology equipment that would otherwise be unavailable.
Chief Stoltz retired on August 31, 2014 after 26 years of service.