In the smallest city in the smallest state in the United States, the Central Falls Fire Department is a career-type fire department that serves the city’s highly dense population of more than 19,000 living in just over one square mile with one centrally-located fire station. An interesting point of history for Central Falls, Rhode Island is that the fire district was established prior to the incorporation of the city.
In October, 1847, almost half a century before the founding of the City of Central Falls, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an Act entitled “An Act to incorporate the Central Falls Fire District.” The Central Falls Fire District had been a corporation inside the existing town of Lincoln at the time.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the State of Rhode Island experienced rapid industrialization and population growth as a result. This created a need for new Townships, and in 1871, the Town of Smithfield that housed more than 30 villages was divided into three towns: Smithfield, North Smithfield, and Lincoln. The Central Falls Fire District was included in the Town of Lincoln. The fire-district, also called the fire-ward, had higher requirements for public spending to accommodate the increasing needs for roads, lights, fire hydrants, and other infrastructure due to its industrialization. These unique requirements established a special tax rate for the fire-district and led to its development of the fire and police departments and control of the water supply and street lights.
As the Central Falls Fire District continued to grow and expand, its industrial needs placed strains on the rural Town of Lincoln. There was talk of merging the fire-district with a neighboring city, Pawtucket, which had similar industrialization happening. Though the fire-district was small, its abundant sense of pride prevented this merger and allowed them to remain mostly independent.
The fire-district also played a substantial role in the formation of the city’s free public library. There was a book collection noted in the historical record that was reserved for members of the fire department and their families. When the fire department turned its collection over to the public in 1874, the first published catalog was established. In 1882 the state granted the Central Falls Fire District permission to create a free library association, open to all local citizens, at the fire house on Cross Street, the fire house that was once the city’s first police station.
Also around this time, the Central Falls Fire District was authorized by a state law to issue its own bonds. These bonds helped to fund the purchase and installation of fire hydrants and the water lines necessary to connect them. Shortly after this, in 1895, the continued growth of this heavily-industrialized fire-ward caused more strains with the largely agrarian taxpayers of the Town of Lincoln, which in turn allowed the City of Central Falls to be formed by the passage of another state law.
Over the next century and beyond, the Fire Department grew with the City, its heroic firefighters saving countless lives in a crowded city where could spread quickly from one building to the next. In recent decades, the Department has further transformed into a nimble institution, embracing new technologies and incessant training to help preserve the city’s aging building stock.
Central Falls has recently emerged this year from a recent bankruptcy, filed in 2011. The turnaround for the city’s bankruptcy proceedings was commendably fast, though the resolution has come with cost-cutting that affects both retired and current Central Falls Fire Department employees with reductions in pension benefits and downsized workforce. The firefighters’ union also gave back concessions to ease the city’s financial burdens, a sacrifice that showcased the union’s devotion to the city.
Along with a newly appointed fire chief, Robert Bradley, this year has also seen increased training, new equipment and the department welcoming its first female firefighter, Katie Nichols.