interest propelled Mulhern through a 22-year career with the
Wilmington Fire Department, the last six of which he served as
chief. Now director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency,
he is taking the lead in assuring that the city's long and
distinguished history of combating the most deadly and feared
Organized fire fighting in
Wilmington dates back to 1775, soon after Benjamin Franklin
introduced the concept in neighboring Philadelphia. The initial
volunteer effort was adequate for well over a century, but by
1921 it had become obvious that something more was needed. So it
was that, on Nov.
30, 1921, the first 50
paid firefighters -- they were all firemen in those days
-- reported for duty.
Impetus for establishing
what initially was the Bureau of Fire in the Department of
Public Safety was a blaze a year earlier at Wilmington
Leather Co., Second Street and Greenhill Avenue, which
destroyed 10 buildings.
Mulhern said the city has
had its share of major fires, but unlike Chicago, London
and, if you go back far enough, ancient Rome, it has been
able to avert a complete catastrophe. The Sash & Door
fire, on Palm Sunday, 1952, remains in his opinion the
can recite a rather long litany of others, continuing until very
recent ones, which destroyed an apartment building at Fifth and
Rodney Streets and the Diver Chevrolet service area at 14th
Street and Grant Avenue.
demonstrates an old-fashioned trumpet which commanders
used to make themselves heard while giving orders at
There is a continuity to fire
history, he pointed out, beginning with the fact the original
volunteer company -- Friendship -- which predates the
Revolutionary War still exists. Its lineal descendent is Engine
Company No. 1, based at Second and West Streets.
By the time the paid
department was organized, there were 12 volunteer companies.
Ten were consolidated to form the new organization. Today, the
city has six engine and two ladder companies. There is also a
marine unit. Its 170 paid firefighters respond to some15,000
calls a year. Wilmington's is the state's only full-time paid
If that indicates fewer
firefighters and equipment can be brought to bear at any given
time, Mulhern said that is compensated for by current
technology and mutual support. For many years, it has been
standard practice for the city to call for backup, when
needed, from volunteer companies throughout New Castle County
and, on a couple occasions as far away as Philadelphia and
10 a.m. -
houses at all city fire stations, including the
marine unit's base.
museum at 1814 Gilpin Ave. opens.
fire apparatus on King Street
muster at Dravo Plaza on the Christina Riverfront
Interdenominational memorial service, St.
Elizabeth Church, Cedar and Clayton Sts.
Anniversary banquet, Riverfront Arts Center
of course, is in sharp contrast to days when fire organizations
not only refused to cooperate but actually battled each other
over turf and jurisdiction while the flames lept.
In Delaware, the
cooperative system works well, he said, because "we all
receive the same training at the Delaware Fire School."
Although in recent
years, as the rural county became suburban, it has
become more difficult to recruit volunteers, Mulhern
said he expects the present arrangement to continue for
the foreseeable future. That said, he added, the number
of paid people in the volunteer companies will, of
necessity, gradually increase.
The volunteers "have
done and continue to do a great job," he said.
Another thing that has
improved the Wilmington department's efficiency was the
deployment -- mostly on his watch -- of equipment and
personnel from stations in the heart of the city to the
present ones in peripheral locations. It is now possible
to reach virtually any
within three minutes, he said.
The city's firefighting
heritage will be duly marked during October and November with
open houses at all fire stations. During the weekend of Oct.
27-28, Wilmington will host the annual statewide fire muster,
which will include what is expected to be the biggest parade
in 50 years. There will be a formal banquet on the actual
A permanent legacy of the
celebration will be the long-planned fire museum in Station
No. 5 on Gilpin Avenue between Scott and Lincoln Streets. More
than 5,000 items, dating back to the beginning, have been
collected for permanent display.
Mulhern, 60, said his career
as a firefighter has been all he thought it would be while
growing up. "In this kind of work, every day is different," he
He recalled the pre-1980s
arrangement by which firefighters worked three days followed
by three nights and then had three days off. Working the night
shift involved sleeping in the upper-floor dormitory at the
firehouse. If an alarm sounded during the night, firefighters
dressed quickly and slid down a brass pole to man the
The poles all have been
removed and Mulhern said that, nostalgia aside, it's good
riddance. "When you wake up in the middle of the night like
that, you're not at your best," he said. "I think more
firefighters were injured using the poles than at fires."
He said he never had any
experience that would be regarded as a close call at a fire.
"I never had a serious injury
or were trapped or anything like that," he said. "But every
fire for every firefighter is a close call."