Sean Mulhern was 10 when he watched the Wilmington Sash & Door lumberyard fire from his grandparents' house at Second and Jackson Streets, just a couple of blocks away from Front and Madison Streets. "I don't know if that's when it started, but I know I've been interested in firefighting ever since I was a kid," he said.

That 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 urban peril.

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 most spectacular.

He 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.

Sean Mulhern demonstrates an old-fashioned trumpet which commanders used to make themselves heard while giving orders at fire scenes.

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 firefighting force..

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 Baltimore.

Anniversary events

Oct. 13
10 a.m.-
4 p.m.

Oct. 20

Oct. 27
10 a.m.

10 a.m. -
4 p.m.

Oct. 28
2 p.m.


Nov. 30 5:30 p.m.

Open houses at all city fire stations, including the marine unit's base.

Fire museum at 1814 Gilpin Ave. opens.

Parade of fire apparatus on King Street

Fire muster at Dravo Plaza on the Christina Riverfront

Interdenominational memorial service, St. Elizabeth Church, Cedar and Clayton Sts.

80th Anniversary banquet, Riverfront Arts Center

That, 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 

address 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 anniversary.

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 said.

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 apparatus.

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."

Posted on September 4, 2001

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