'Where it all started'
Fire Station 1, Gwinnett's first, closes after 37 years

NORCROSS - Imagine this: Not even 40 years ago, the entire dispatch service for the Gwinnett County Fire Department - now a massive force considered among the nation's swiftest - was housed in the corner of a tiny kitchen, powered by a car battery.

The entire fire department consisted of 10 guys. They slept crammed like sardines in a former meeting area transformed to a bunk room.

The sole training facility - a defunct little school nearby - was equally meager, but that didn't stop firefighters from scaling its walls for practice.

In those days, newbie firefighters pulled a whopping $13,000 per year. The whole department ran on an $89,000 budget. The county's only firehouse was a crowded 3,000-square-foot space, little more than a glorified garage. They had one engine.

Times, how they change.

Friday night was a celebration of reflection for the department's stalwarts and fresh faces alike. Its flagship station - the weathered and cramped Fire Station 1 near downtown Norcross - was locked up today for the last time, exactly 37 years and 14 days since it opened in 1971.

They called it the "Last Call." Chief Steve Rolader cooked chili, and everyone reminisced. The station was active for its last night, and a handful of retired diehards planned to stay for 12 hours to see it all.

It was a sleepover of sorts, and all the old boys were invited.

"Station 1 was the home, the anchor," said Capt. Charlie Wood, who retired in 1999. "This is where it all started. She's like our ship - we've got to tell her goodbye."

This weekend, the Norcross firefighters will uproot to the new and highly modernized Station 1 a few blocks away. The new facility more than doubles its predecessor in space - 7,000 square feet - and allows firefighters amenities like a fitness center and heavy-duty kitchen appliances.

Since Station 1's bay doors first flung open, the department has boomed.

These days, it employs more than 700 men and women. Its coverage area is 437 square miles - the state's largest district. It feeds on a $60 million budget and protects more than 800,000 people.

And the 28th Gwinnett fire station is expected to open soon near Loganville.

"These men here tonight laid the foundation," said Gwinnett fire spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge. "Without them, we wouldn't be here."

Humble beginnings

In 1967, seven people died in house fires around Norcross. Something had to be done.

County commissioners of the day offered districts a countywide fire protection plan, which only the Pinckneyville District adopted. The district later voted in favor for county fire protection and birthed the current fire department in 1970. Its first two employees were hired a year later.

Citizens and businesses applauded. The Gwinnett County Fire Department responded to its first alarm at 10:15 a.m. on March 30, 1971. They apparently did a solid job.

The county's first chief, Ray Mattison (now head of the Winder Fire Department), said Station 1's small stature belied its importance in local history.

"The camaraderie was unbelievable," Mattison recalled. "We started a journey on a strange bus, and by the time it was over, we were family.

"We will always be close."

"This was the happening place," echoed Capt. Ron Buice, who manned the station for two years in the mid-1970s. "The people, they were so friendly. If you had a call, (homeowners) would come by the station and thank us."

Not everybody on hand Friday was a former employee. Norcross political matriarch Lillian Webb mingled with her old counterparts, and later thumbed her way through a Station 1 yearbook. She laughed at the old salary figures.

Another reveler, Irene Sage, was ironically - and accidentally - born in Station 1 on Feb. 15, 1973.

Firefighters delivered Sage, now a fire department information management employee, on a bunk in the back room. Minutes before the delivery, Sage's aunt had brought her mother to Station 1, where they'd surely find an ambulance, they thought. No dice. And Sage wasn't being patient.

Her birth - much like the station itself - has become the stuff of legend.

"It's kind of neat," Sage laughed Friday night. "Looks like I was in good hands."