The History of Bella Vista Fire Department
The history of fire protection in Bella Vista started with a group of Cooper employees who acted as volunteers. But the growth of the then Bella Vista Village in the late 1960s warranted a more formal firefighting setup. So, in June 1969, the Bella Vista Village Property Owners Association Board of Directors established the first Fire Department, appointing Donald M. Grisham as the volunteer chief.
Grisham was an engineer employed by Cooper. He and his volunteers organized their department at the Hill N Dale restaurant on September 20. They protected the 36,000-acre Village with a single pumper truck.
When the POA Board created the Fire Department that year, they also approved plans for the first fire station and security building. In August 1969, bids were received for the construction of this building at the junction of highways 71 and 340 —Town Center. Construction began in November and was completed in May 1970. The first version of Station No. 1 included 3,000 square feet plus a bay with three large doors, as it is seen today. Fire and security offices were located together in what is now Fire Station No. 1’s offices and living quarters. The current laundry facility was once the security holding cell.
Bella Vistans were proud of their new facility, and dedicated it with a ribbon cutting on May 19, 1970. The added protection the facility provided reduced fire insurance rates in the Village. Until that time, there had been numerous devastating fires in the community. That danger was greatly reduced with the new organized department and good equipment.
The new department received a brand new 1969 Boardman pumper, which could pump 1,000 gallons per minute. A smaller truck was also in use, mainly to fight grass fires, and could pump 250 gallons per minute.
During its first year of operation, leadership of the still volunteer department shifted to Joe Hiett. The volunteer firefighters were provided special training to improve their firefighting skills. They operated under this volunteer fashion until it became clear that Bella Vista was growing, and needed a higher degree of professionalism in their fire protection.
A PAID DEPARTMENT
In January 1972, William Beck was appointed the first paid fire chief in Bella Vista. Beck hailed from Texas and had been Fire Chief at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls. Beck hired the first paid fireman, Ron Wardlaw, who started work at the department on November 20, 1972, and would stick around until his retirement in 2001. The Village now had an active, paid, 24-hour Fire Department.
The Village managed with a single fire station at Town Center until 1977, when in April the POA opened Station No. 2 on the east side, at the junction of Highway 340 and Trafalgar Road. Just prior to that, in January 1977, the POA purchased a new 1976 Boardman pumper truck for $48,000. The original 1,000-gallon pumper was shifted to the east-side station. Stations 1 and 2 operated this way under Beck until he retired at the end of 1979.
On December 21, 1979, David
Spring was named the next Fire Chief. Spring had been with the department five years, after serving 16 years in the Amarillo Fire Department in Texas. By the end of the 70’s, the Bella Vista Country Club Fire Department, as it was known then, had a new chief, two stations, two worthy fire trucks, eight paid firemen and 17 volunteers.
By design, retirees were moving to Bella Vista for the active lifestyle, and so the growing older population began needing an ambulance service. Liability issues had delayed this service from taking off in the past, but in July 1977, the POA made an arrangement with Elcare, Inc. — the operator of Concordia, to provide ambulance service to Bella Vistans for a monthly fee of $500 from the POA.
This system operated for 5 years, but in 1976 the Bella Vista Ambulance Service, Inc., a nonprofit organization, was organized to provide ambulance service. A board of directors oversaw the program, and canvassed the community for funds to equip the service. By March 1, 1977, the committee had raised almost $40,000. On Sept. 24, 1977, about 200 people gathered at Riordan Hall to dedicate the first ambulance purchased for $25,415 and initiate the ambulance service. Service officially began Oct. 1 of that year, operated by 14 trained medical personnel. Bella Vista residents paid a $25 annual membership per year for the service. Beck was Bella Vista’s first certified EMT and first Ambulance Service officer.
The service was profitable, earning almost $3,000 in its first year. It had 347 members as of December 1977, and was growing rapidly. Almost four years later, on Sept. 30, 1981, the POA General Manager purchased the service’s 1,000th membership. The service had made itself known as one of the best in all of northwest Arkansas.
By September 1984, plans were complete for an expansion of the fire and security headquarters at Town Center. Work began on the construction of a new two-story building in June 1985. The new facility abutted the current station on the east side of the building. It housed the security department on the first floor and additional POA administration offices on the second.
As growth in the area continued, the POA Board voted on Nov. 21, 1985 to construct a third fire station on the west side near Branchwood. The station opened for service July 6, 1986. That year, additional firefighters were hired to staff the Highlands station. The total came to 23 paid firefighters and 12 volunteers, and the population of Bella Vista was approximately 6,500.
Six years later, in December 1992, Chief David Spring transferred to Fire Marshal, and Henry Thompson became the department’s third paid chief. Thompson had been with the department since 1980, after serving as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force for 7 years and the Federal Civil Service for 4 years. Spring retired from the department in June 1994.
In August 1994, Station No. 2 on Hwy. 340 closed, and the firefighters were moved to Station No. 1 for better coverage of the city. An engine, a brush truck and an ambulance were still kept at the unmanned station, and used when needed.
Still under the direction of the POA, Station No. 2 on Trafalgar Road at Commonwealth was started in late 2004, and opened in the spring of 2005. Nine additional firefighters were hired to staff the new station.
A CITY IN ITS INFANCY
On January 1, 2007, Bella Vista officially became a city with a population of 15,632, after voters approved the incorporation in the 2006 General Election. At this time, however, the Fire Department still operated under the POA. The brand new city was busy working first on taking over police service from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, who operated a satellite office in Bella Vista providing police coverage to residents, to ensure police protection for residents after incorporation. It was unclear at the time whether the Fire Department would move to city operation for financial reasons. The Bella Vista Ambulance Service continued to operate the ambulance through the use of Fire Department personnel, charging $40 per household for those insured or $80 for those without insurance per year for membership.
Henry Thompson retired in July 2007. In August 2007, Steve Sims was named the fourth fire chief. Sims had started with the department in 1995 as a firefighter/paramedic.
On January 1, 2008, the Fire Department came under the city after all, and 33 paid firefighters were now city employees, including a fire chief, deputy chief, three battalion chiefs, six lieutenants and five part-time employees. The department still operated out of three stations.
In 2009, Bella Vista voters approved a one-cent sales tax for public safety, which allowed for the hiring of nine additional firefighters, along with seven police officers. The city’s first ladder truck — a 2009 Sutphen SL75 Quint — was purchased for $660,000. This truck was added to the fleet to satisfy Insurance Services Offices (ISO) requirements that call for a ladder truck in cities that have buildings taller than the department’s longest ground ladder.
The department was funded by tax revenue and county and state turnback funds, which were still based on its 2000 census population of almost 16,000. In 2010, the city initiated a special census, which resulted in the increased population count of 25,250.
Two years later, in January 2012, the Bella Vista Ambulance Service was dissolved and the city took over operation. Residents no longer paid a membership for the five paramedic ALS ambulances that ran in the city. The following year, the city added a sixth ambulance to the fleet to meet the growing demands of the community. The department responded to 2838 total medical and fire calls in 2013. In 2014, they would increase this number, responding to 3,325 total medical and fire calls.
In April 2014, Deputy Chief Glenn Puryear retired from the department after 34 years. Bryan Wolfgang was named the new Deputy Chief, after having worked for the department since 1985.
The City Council-appointed Emergency Management Committee began in 2013 researching and analyzing data to start the process of adding a fourth fire station. Funding for this station, to be located near the Highlands Gate, was approved by the City Council in the spring of 2014, and architectural and design work began. Ground was broken July 2015 and the station opened July 9, 2016. In 2014, after the approval of the station, the department started the process of hiring and training the 12 new personnel needed to staff the new station. By August 2016, all four stations were fully staffed.
In November 2015, the city took delivery of a 2016 KME pumper truck, to be housed at Station No. 2. After a contest at Cooper Elementary, first graders named the truck “Fire Destroyer.”
The new Engine 4 — a twin to Fire Destroyer — was delivered in August 2016, and named “Water Warrior” by Gravette Elementary students.
By year end 2015, the department had responded to 4,131 total medical and fire calls, showing no sign of slowing down. The city currently operates the three, almost four, stations, with Sims and Wolfgang commanding a staff of 42 full-time firefighters, who also serve as medical personnel — 26 licensed paramedics and 19 licensed EMTs, plus two administrative personnel. Each of three 24-hour shifts is commanded by a Battalion Chief and two captains.
The department also operates fully equipped HazMat and Swift-Water Rescue teams, and soon-to-be fully equipped Dive Team, to serve the community which includes seven lakes, along with all of Benton County on a mutual aid contract basis.
With state-of-the-art fire apparatuses and one of the most medically advanced ambulances in the area, the City of Bella Vista Fire Department continues to grow alongside its community, and provide to its residents the most up-to-date protection against loss of life and property.