The Benicia Volunteer Firemen, Incorporated was founded in 1847. It is the oldest continuously operated volunteer fire service in California, and it was the first volunteer fire organization west of the Mississippi. The founding of the volunteer firefighter organization coincided with the arrival of the Phoenix, Benicia’s first fire truck. The Phoenix was built in 1820 and served for her first 27 years in the New York Volunteer Fire Department. In 1847, it was purchased by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and became the first fire engine to travel to California. It was brought to Benicia in 1849, the same year the city was founded by Dr. Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin. Joining the Fire Department became the ultimate goal for young men in Benicia. They vied amongst themselves for acceptance by the firemen. Only the most able-bodied and deft were allowed to handle the pumper.
The volunteer fire department was called the “bucket brigade,” as every house holder in Benicia was required to have a fire bucket.
For better protection, a water system was constructed along First Street with cisterns at every block and the volunteers used the Phoenix engine, which was located on East Sixth Street and H Street, to battle flames. It remained in service for 74 years, but in the early 1900s it was replaced by a state of the art steam engine. In 1923 the Phoenix was loaned to the De Young Museum in San Francisco and was on exhibition there until 1966, when it returned to Benicia.
Benicia’s first fire brigade was made up of ordinary citizens.
The area’s first station, the Solano Engine Company Fire House, was on First Street, not far from the Benicia State Capitol. As illustrious as the history of the Benicia Volunteer Firemen is, there is much more to the organization than its history. Now, volunteers undergo extensive training, including learning some of the same skills that professional firefighters must have. That includes climbing to the top of a fully extended engine ladder and learning how to use extraction tools. It also means learning how to handle wildfires that now occur with greater frequency.
Benicia Fire Department firefighters respect the volunteers and give them as much experience and exposure as possible, so volunteers can support them in times of need. The volunteers have learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first-responder medical training — which is very valuable knowledge because it can be used not only in fire situations, but also in other emergencies.
Pagers and smartphones have replaced the whistles and bells that summoned volunteers in previous eras, but some vestiges of the past remain. Harkening back to the city’s early days, Phoenix Group is the name of one of four groups into which today’s fire volunteers are divided. The others are Active Reservists, made up of about 10 members who are working to become professional firefighters; the Logistical Support Group, six to eight people who make sure the equipment and supplies are ready and restocked for firefighters battling a blaze; and the Benicia Fire Museum Docents, between seven and 10 volunteers who guide visitors through the museum’s exhibits.
900 E 2nd St, Benicia, CA 94510