Echo Hose Hook & Ladder: Shelton’s oldest firehouse looks to the future

Founded in 1882, Echo Hose Hook & Ladder Fire Company No. 1 has the distinction of being the oldest of the city’s four fire companies.

The company is now at 379 Coram Ave. in downtown Shelton, but the original building was on Howe Avenue, next to where Subway Restaurant is today, and served as both firehouse and police station.

The sign that adorned that building hangs now in the social room of the Coram Avenue firehouse, along with a photograph of early 1900 firehouse members under the same sign and a photo of the company’s 125th anniversary parade.

“We try to keep the history around the building,” said Asst. Fire Chief Paul Wilson, who serves as the liaison to the city and was elected by Echo Hose firehouse members.

The Coram Avenue headquarters was built in 1961.

“It’s falling apart,” Wilson said.

A recent study showed that the building isn’t compatible with the fire apparatus, he said, and the floor isn’t workable and needs to be replaced.

“In 1961, this was a great location,” Wilson said. But now, the relatively narrow street makes it difficult to maneuver the 47-foot-long ladder truck out of the building.

“We can’t get it out onto the street in one sweep,” he said.

The company will soon add a new 40-foot-long squad truck to its apparatus, and it will be equally as difficult to maneuver out of the building.

Mayor Mark Lauretti is working on acquiring property for a new firehouse, Wilson said.

Reasons for a firefighting career

Wilson said he enjoys his work in Shelton because it’s a mix of urban, commercial and rural neighborhoods, and members also respond to highway calls.

“You get a taste of everything,” said Wilson, who’s a career firefighter in New Canaan. He is serving his 24th year in the fire service, his 16th year in Shelton.

He serves alongside Fire Capt. Mike Plavcan, who oversees day-to-day operations of the Echo Hose firehouse with support from two lieutenants.

The men have their own reasons for choosing their career paths.

“I got into it because my father was a firefighter,” Wilson said. “Once you go out on a truck the first time, you’re hooked.”

Plavcan, who is a dispatcher for the city of Norwalk and a nine-year Echo Hose member, said he likes “helping members of the public on their worst day.”

He said he was inspired to go into firefighting after the events of Sept. 11 and “seeing 343 [firefighters] rush into a dangerous situation and do everything they could to save people. I thought it was very honorable.”

Largest volunteer department

Shelton’s fire department is the largest volunteer fire department in Connecticut and is among the top three in New England in terms of volunteers, Wilson said.

“Sometimes people see volunteer service as a hobby,” he said. “It’s definitely not a hobby.”

Teamwork and training play a large part in fire service.

About 90% of Echo Hose members have pagers, Plavcan said, and when an incident occurs in their coverage area and they’re at their regular jobs, dispatchers send out a tone letting them know which firehouse is being called.

When they hear the call, they report to the firehouse and respond.

Constantly training

Members participate in four to eight drills a month, as well as citywide training and monthly training sessions at other city fire companies.

Recently, firefighters received training in using a personal escape system that enables them to leave upper windows of a burning building using ropes attached to their gear.

There is also extrication training, and structural fire training at fire schools in Fairfield and New Haven.

A new system ensures that all members check in for assignment when they show up at a fire scene, Wilson said. Otherwise, members may not know that the firefighter is inside a burning building.

“The city has come a long way, in terms of accountability,” he said.

Overnight response team

Echo Hose has an overnight response crew that regularly sleeps at the firehouse, Plavcan said, and members work second and third shifts to ensure coverage.

“We spend a lot of time here to be prepare," Wilson said. "It’s like a football game. If one person drops the ball, it’s not going to work.”

Echo Hose covers the city from the Derby line to Riverview Park up to Bridgeport Avenue and Commerce Drive, and up to Meadow Street.

“We’ve got the largest district in town,” he said, and members also respond to structure fires that occur throughout the city.

As an overall department, members of the city's four volunteer companies protect 31.9 square miles of residential, commercial and industrial properties, with a population of 40,000 that swells to more than 100,000 during the day.

The fire company's equipment

Echo Hose has two fire engines, a tower truck, a rescue truck, a utility truck and a boat, and 80% of company’s 80 volunteers are trained in water rescue.

This summer, the company will acquire an $800,000 squad truck that can handle both rescue and fire emergencies, Wilson said.

The current 1984 rescue vehicle can only carry two people to emergency scenes in its cab, and the rest ride outside.

“Open seats are not acceptable,” Wilson said. “The new squad truck will get six firefighters to the scene in the cab.”

It’s equipped with a water tank and a light tower that can illuminate a scene, and its purchase was approved in a referendum.

“The residents were gracious enough to allow us to get it,” Wilson said.

The majority of the company’s 800 emergency calls are fire calls, and this past year, there were 12 calls for river rescue, including boats in distress and boaters falling overboard.

Company members are on standby during regattas.

Fires that stand out

Wilson and Plavcan each recall fires that stand out.

Wilson recalls the fire at Shelton High School in December 2008, while Plavcan said the massive blaze on Howe Avenue in January stands out for many reasons, including the “building collapse, the amount of victims and water main breaks.”

“It was amazing there was no life lost,” Wilson said. “Our guys did a great job.”

Giving back to the community

Echo Hose members give back to the community in other ways. “It’s not just about firefighting,” Plavcan said.

The volunteers participate in fund-raising events for many causes, including Relay for Life, a dodgeball tournament and a bowl-athon for domestic violence victims and T-shirt sales for cancer patients and the Bridgeport Hospital burn unit.

“A lot of the companies do charitable work,” Wilson said.

Members are planning a comedy show to benefit the firehouse.

In the end, there’s a shared mission among Shelton firefighters. “We all have the same goal. It’s helping neighbors," Wilson said.