Oteen Veterans Administration Hospital Fire Department

Created July 24, 2014
Updated February 3, 2016


Introduction

From 1919 to 1976, the Oteen Veterans Administration Hospital in Asheville was protected by a federal fire department. In the 1920s and likely later, they also responded off-property, to assist the Asheville Fire Department at major fires. By the 1950s, the department was named Oteen Protective Services, and its members also provided security services. These were likely career members by the 1950s. They operated at least three pieces of apparatus: 1918 American LaFrance Type 75 triple combination, 1947 Jeep/Boyer with front-mounted pumper, and 1957 International Harvester/Howe pumper. Their fire station was located in at least three sites, a 1918-1919 fire station, a 1939 multi-purpose building, and a 1959 fire station. The department closed in 1976, and the city of Asheville began contracted fire protection to the hospital.

History

In 1918, US Army General Hospital No. 19, located approximately four miles east of downtown Asheville, NC, began serving soldiers who were training for World War I duty. The hospital was located in the community of Azalea, which was previously known as Gudger’s Ford before being renamed for the flowering bush.

Dr. Z. P. Gruner opened the facility in 1875 as the country’s first private tuberculosis sanitarium. Also known as Azalea Hospital, it later became the only Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital in the southeast devoted to the treatment of respiratory ailments.

Also in 1918, Sales Order 8790 was issued by the American LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, NY, specifying details from the United States government for sixteen fire engines subsequently assigned to facilities throughout the country.

Fourteen were Type 75 triple combination pumpers, with specifications of a 156.5” wheelbase, 105-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, and a 750 gallon-per-minute rotary gear pump. This was a very popular apparatus sold between 1915 and 1927, and many served throughout North Carolina.1

On June 18, 1918, American LaFrance Registered Number 2234 was shipped to Azalea, NC, for use at Hospital No. 19. The engine is shown in the below undated photo. Although thought to be on the hospital grounds, the exact location of the pictured fire station is unknown. The truck was reportedly sold to Meriden, MS on April 8, 1935.

From American LaFrance delivery records as compiled by the late American LaFrance historian John Peckham of Cropseyville, NY, and East Arlington, VT: 

Click to enlarge:

This picture appeared in a publication titled Souvenir Book of U. S. Veterans’ Hospital, circa 1922. Part of the North Carolina Collection at Pack Memorial Library in Asheville, it was compiled and edited by Joseph and Mildred Bernstein. The picture (though printed reversed) appears on a page titled "Our Fire Department"  along with this narrative:

"Oteen is well provided for in case of fire. Although the buildings are of temporary structure, every precaution has been taken to minimize fire hazards. The Fire Department is very efficient and well equipped with the latest improved apparatus. Fire drills are frequent and the department has always done such commendable work at these drills that the patients feel that if a fire should break out their firemen would curb it before much damage was done."

By 1924, the facility was known as the Oteen Veteran’s Administration Hospital. The word “Oteen” was derived from an American Indian word meaning "chief aim.” It was adopted at the suggestion of Colonel Henry Hoagland, the chief aim being that every patient get well.

The Oteen Fire Department also responded to assist off-property, as this Asheville Fire Department log book notes from July 24, 1924:

1The remaining two pumpers on the 1918 sales order, American LaFrance Registered Numbers 2244 and 2245, were Type 12 triple combination pumpers. They had specifications of a 161.7” wheelbase, 120-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, and a 1,000 gallon-per-minute rotary gear pump. (Like the Type 75 triple combination, sales of these also began in 1915.) On September 26, 1918, #2245 was shipped to Fort Bragg. This was the only other piece of apparatus in the order to be shipped to North Carolina.  

This undated picture appears in Firefighting in Buncombe County. Click to slightly enlarge:


Courtesy of Bob Bryson

Fire Station Locations

The fire department was housed in at least three buildings. Two of the structures are still standing, built in 1934 and by 1959.

The final location, erected by 1959, was a single-story, single-bay block building located on the southeast corner of the campus. The fire station was large enough for only one vehicle. The building is still standing and is part of a credit union building. The rear section is the old fire station.


Photographed November 2014 by Mike Legeros.

This earlier photo appears in Firefighting in Buncombe County, and shows the fire station building being remodeled to serve as the credit union. The old apparatus bay and window openings are visible. The building was subsequently expanded, and the exterior remodeled. Click to slightly enlarage:


Shelia Biddix photo, courtesy of Charles George VA Medical Center

The fire department's earlier location was a one- and two-story wooden structure on the north end (or rear) of the campus. Built in 1934, it's described in a National Register of Historic Places document dated November 20, 1985. Named “former fire station and garage” it's noted as:

“One of the last permanent-type buildings constructed in the complex, the fire station and garage is a two-story flat-roofed structure with flanking one-story wings. The principle elevation, which faces east, is formally organized around four segmentally arched vehicle bays. The careful design of this utilitarian structure highlights the planning concept behind the entire complex. Although sited with other utilitarian structures well to the rear of the main hospital campus, the building displays both the symmetrical and classical details of the Georgian Revival theme.” it’s identified on a map dated November 1946, with revisions dating from December 1948 to September 1964. The building is labeled “fire department garage and quarters” and is situated near others named as warehouse and utilities shops.

Today, the building is located on private property that houses a nursing home.


Photographed November 2014 by Mike Legeros.

The 1934 fire station is shown on a map dated November 1946, with revisions dating from December 1948 to September 1964. The building is labeled “fire department garage and quarters” and is situated near others named as warehouse and utilities shops. Click to enlarge:


The first location was a wood-frame structure located on the northern edge of the "lower reservation." Click to enlarge:

It's also shown on this map, which part of the completion report submitted to the constructing quartermasters on June 1, 1919. Click to enlarge:

Today the site is private property, part of a nursing home. The approximate location was photographed in August 2016.


Courtesy Asheville VA Medical Center

Apparatus and Personnel

At least three pieces of fire apparatus were operated at the hospital:

Career firefighters were added by 1934, at the time the fire department moved into its new station. The fire department had twelve members and one fire truck. They functioned primarily as security guards and worked twenty four-hour shifts. This picture, which appears in Firefighting in Buncombe County, is circa 1935 and shows the fire department and their fire truck in front of the old main hospital. Click to slightly enlarge. 


Courtesy of the Charles George VA Medical Center.

By 1956, the fire department was a function of the Oteen Protective Section, that provided 24-hour fire and security services.

This picture appeared in the Asheville Citizen on October 29, 1956. Shown are, front row, left to right, Wiley Griffin, Frank Stevens, Frank Hunnicutt, W. E. Case, and William Cole, crew chiefs William Smith, Garrett D. Bailey, Harold Keever, chief Charles S. Metcalf. Back row, Murray Allman, Frank Presley, Edward Henderson, Harry Mynheir, and Claude L. Herren.

In July 1975, "supervisor firefighter" William J. Smith retired after more than 31 years of federal service. This announcement appeared in the Asheville Citizen on September 11, 1975.

 

In December 1975, the fire protection force consisted of eleven firefighters, all veterans, and two federal police officers. The fire station was staffed with two men on a normal shift. They were the minimal that could operate the truck, and they were assisted by other hospital employees in emergencies. During most hours, the firemen provided double duty as security guards. The firefighters were career employees.

The End of the Department

The City of Asheville assumed fire protection responsibility in 1976 and likely on July 1. A public hearing on the city contract was held in January 1976. The proposed contract amount was $65,000 for the first year (until July 1, 1977), and $75,000 for the second year. The annual fee would be renegotiated each year thereafter. The hospital would close its fire department, and the firemen were promised other jobs at the hospital. Though located in the recently annexed Oteen section of Asheville, the hospital was outside the city limits.

In addition to fire suppression and responding to emergencies, the city's would conduct annual pre-planning inspections, semi-annual fire hazard inspections with follow-ups, and conduct training seminars for hospital personnel. Fire Chief Powell Ball noted that the first response to a reported hospital fire would be two engines and a ladder, and the first unit could arrive within 90 seconds of an alarm, from its Beverly Hills fire station. The chief also noted that no new personnel or equipment would be needed, to provide adequate protection to the hospital.

The closing of the federally operated fire department was opposed by several Buncombe County veterans organizations, as the proposal was publicized in December 1975. The job changes would reduce the average pay of the firemen by $2,000 a year, which was their 15 percent hazardous duty premium, plus the loss of some retirement benefits.

Sources - Newspapers

Asheville Citizen

Asheville Gazeteer, various issues, via Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.

Sources - Other

This page originally appeared as a Legeros Fire Blog posting on July 21, 2014.


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