The Naperville Fire Department is celebrating a major milestone – its 150th anniversary – with events planned throughout the year.
“This is so exciting to be able to be in this department in this point in history, 150 years, who knew where we’d be, who knew where’d the city would be?” said Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis. “It’s exciting to be able to celebrate that and reflecting all the great events and things that made the Naperville Fire Department what it is today.”
What sparked the Naperville Fire Department
It all started back in 1874 with the city’s purchase of Naperville’s first piece of fire fighting equipment, the Joe Naper Pumper. Named after the city’s founder, the fire department still brings it out during parades.
“That was something that caused people to form companies to man that,” said Christine McNulty, Chief Curator at Naper Settlement. “They hired two staff people, the first fire marshals, and the rest were volunteers. They performed drills, they learned the ins and outs, and when there was a fire, they showed up.”
According to the city of Naperville: The Naperville Fire Department was founded and chartered by the city of Naperville and State of Illinois in 1874 after two major fires occurred in the downtown area. In 1883, Naperville’s first central fire station was constructed on West Jefferson Street in downtown Naperville. The main station remained in the downtown area until 1992, at which time the Fire Administration Building was constructed at the Public Safety complex on Aurora Avenue.
City growth ignites advances in fire department operations
As the city grew over the years, so too did the Naperville Fire Department, turning from volunteer-based to full-time paid personnel. It now boasts 10 different fire stations with more than 200 employees who do more than just put out fires. According to the fire chief, the department is one of only two such agencies in the world to have achieved international accreditation six consecutive times in a row.
“Honing their craft and building their skills is a major part of that,” said McNulty. “Fire science is a major field of research in education and training, and Naperville has been keeping up with that throughout its entire history.”
“Now we’re constantly training with technical rescue, water rescue, hazardous materials,” added Chief Puknaitis. “There’s no 9-1-1 for 9-1-1. People are expecting us to get the job done and we can’t say ‘oh my gosh this is too big for us. We have to call somebody else.’ There is nobody else. We are the bottom line. We have to make it work and we do, and I’m very proud of all of our people for collaborating and making that happen.”
The importance of collaboration within the department
That collaboration was evident on a number of occasions throughout the department’s history, from saving North Central College’s “Old Main” when it went up in flames in 1997 to more recently when an EF-3 tornado ripped through Naperville in 2021.
“We train on that kind of thing, but we never really thought a tornado of that capacity was going to hit this town of Naperville because we have so many buildings and congested areas. Usually by the time a tornado comes out this way, it starts to subside but not on this day,” said Chief Puknaitis. “There were only a handful of people that were taken to the hospital and no fatalities.”
Celebrations in the works in partnership with Naper Settlement
As part of this anniversary year, the Naperville Fire Department is teaming up with Naper Settlement to plan a number of events. Starting in May, the settlement will have a collection of firefighting equipment on public display at the settlement’s Pre-Emption House. The outdoor museum will also host a picnic for members of the department and their families in July.
“They’re very knowledgeable at the settlement and have done a great job,” said Scott Salela, Division Chief at the Naperville Fire Department. “We’re really looking forward to seeing that.”
McNulty says she is excited not just to spotlight the department as a whole but to honor each firefighter as an individual. “These are people. These are men and women. They face risks. They face loss,” she said. “It’s a very difficult job and it’s no wonder that it’s so revered.”
The Naperville Fire Department is also planning a pancake breakfast, golf outing, parade, and a special edition of its annual open house, showcasing antique fire trucks and equipment. It will be offering commemorative patches, challenge coins, and temporary license plates to its members and retirees. Additionally, the Associated Firefighters of Illinois will be holding its annual convention at the Embassy Suites in Naperville at the end of June and will incorporate the department’s 150th anniversary into that program.
“We’re trying to do as much commemorative events as we can and get everybody involved. This is everybody’s department,” said Salela. “I think it’s going to be a great year for the department and it’s going to be exciting.”
According to Salela, a committee featuring past and present members of the fire department, plus representatives from the settlement, has been working on these plans since the beginning of 2023. NCTV17 will have more details on these events as they approach.
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