STILL ALARM! Christmas Eve 1919

I take you back 100 years to Christmas Eve, December 24, 1919 just as the fire bell is shattering the quiet in Engine 47’s firehouse at 7531 S. Dobson. “Squad 5, you are due to respond to the still alarm”.

The term “still” originated from the days when most fire alarms were transmitted by a street pullbox. A still alarm was considered “silent” when called into the fire department by telephone or by a means other than the loud clicking telegraph signal from the street box. Hence the term “still”.

The post office, in 1919, had been delivering 24 million pieces of Christmas mail and 2 million parcels. Products of the day included Belmont biscuits, Cuticura soap, and Christmas candies at $.80 a pound. Victrola’s were in vogue selling for $25 and $700. There were movies with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. On stage there was Ziegfield Follies.

In most homes, lighted candles illuminated Christmas trees, an extreme fire hazard which kept the Chicago Fire Department very busy during the holidays.


It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. The story goes that walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.


John DeBreau

John DeBreau was born on January 29, 1893 in Harvey Illinois, the first born son of Toussaint Joseph “Tosant” Tossin DeBreau who was born 1867 in Belgium.

John's mother Hattie at 16
Hattie  age 16

John’s mother was Hattie Heersema born 1874 in Onarga Illinois.. His Grandparents John Baptiste and Anne Josephine Chappelle had immigrated to the United States and settled in Iroquois County Illinois.

40 w 115th

John grew up at 40 W. 115th Street with his parents and siblings Thomas, Albert, Etta and Anna.




He became a proud Chicago firefighter on January 19, 1919.

Engine 47, Squad 5 Coal Supply Wagon 11

In August of that year the Chicago Fire department had organized Squad #5 and placed it in Engine 47’s house at 7531 S. Dobson along with Coal Supply Wagon #11. The old frame firehouse was built in 1888.                                                                                                                                                                         Squad #5 was tasked with supplementing the engine companies and to man additional hose lines on the first arriving engines. The squad crews in the beginning were called pipemen. The squads were already carrying inhalator/resuscitators which were also known for many years as pulmotors. The squads also started carrying early extrication tools including acetylene cutting torches and heavy duty jacks used in accidents.. They also had early of versions of gas masks which included filter type and air masks used during stubborn fires, below grade level rescues, and gas leaks.

A similar rig circa 1919



On December 24, 1919, Squad Company #5 were responding to a still alarm of an unknown nature. Only about four minutes and one mile from the firehouse, at the intersection of South Chicago Ave. and 79th St. they swerved to avoid hitting a butcher’s cart.


Pipeman John DeBreau was thrown from the fire apparatus suffering a skull fracture. His lieutenant, Frank Gaugush suffered a broken leg. Both were taken about three miles to the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital at 5800 S Stony Island, just adjacent to the IC railroad tracks. The purpose of the hospital was expressly, “To deal with traumatic injuries, such as the mangled legs and arms of railroad workers in need of amputation.” According to the death certificate, John DeBreau died December 26 1919 at age 26 years 10 months and 25 days.


Although we don’t know for sure whether that still alarm on December 24th was sounded for a Christmas Tree candle fire or for some other emergency, we do know that John was serving Chicago in the finest tradition. I cannot imagine how sad a Christmas it must have been for his mother Hattie, his brothers and sisters. as they learned of John’s accident and rushed to his side on Christmas.


John was buried December 29, 1919 in Lot 197 Section 13 grave 2S, Mount Greenwood Cemetery, 2900 west 111th Street. His simple stone honored his profession as a firefighter with the symbol of a fire service pipe.


John is further remembered along Chicago’s lakefront at the Burnham Park Chicago Firefighter and Paramedic Memorial. The Gold Badge Society of families of fallen firefighters and paramedics sponsored the development of this beautiful 3.5 acre memorial. It is located within Daniel Burnham Park, just southeast of McCormick Place Lakeside Center, and adjacent to the Lakefront Trail. The site includes hand laid stones inscribed with the names of more than 570 Chicago firefighters and paramedics who have been killed in the line of duty since 1857.

The bronze elements were produced by sculptor Marshall Svendsen with assistance from firefighter and paramedic John Alaniz. Art works include firefighter’s boots and helmets as well as a traditional fireman’s bell. Dozens of off-duty Fire Department members and families helped to plant flowering shrubs and perennials that beautify the space. Mayor Richard M. Daley dedicated the memorial on September 11, 2002.

j2So on this Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also can take a moment to remember and thank Chicago firefighter Pipeman John DeBreau for his service.

This teaches us that the time between birth and death, the beginning and the end of our lives, can sometime be sadly cut short. We need to make each day count, treasuring each that we have been given, We should remember all who have come and gone before us, especially and most importantly, our family. It is all about family.

I wish you all very blessed Christmas.

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