A treasure on the sixth floor

Meet Kenneth F. Little who had an awesome knowledge of Chicago streets way before computers and GPS. He was the retired senior fire-alarm operator with the Chicago Fire Department.  I was honored to know Ken Little and have him as a good friend   He had hundreds of friends and touched and influenced many more.  Who knows how many people he helped, mentored, inspired and even saved.. Ken Little was a invaluable one-of-a-kind resource for the Chicago Fire Department.  He co-authored six books literally writing the book on the History of the Chicago Fire Department including the incredible four volume History of Chicago Fire Houses.

Back before CAD, GPS, and dispatch software, over 500,000 calls per year, as much as one per minute, would come into the “Main” Fire alarm office on the sixth floor of City Hall or the “Englewood” fire alarm office at 63rd and Wentworth serving the south side. Both offices are now history, replaced in the fall of 1995 by the OEMC/911 center at 1411 West Madison St.

Ken Little

Ken was often the first voice you heard when anyone called the old Fire 1313  phone number or the current 911 system to report a fire. He was also often the voice heard over every loudspeaker in every Chicago firehouse as he would dispatch an alarm. His unmistakable voice:  “ENGINE 83 AND THE GROUP, A STILL 4517 BEACON”.  He would also be heard on the fire radio KSC711such as responding to a returning fire truck, “MESSAGE RECIEVED SALVAGE 3”  

 But he was way more than a voice. Amazingly, Ken knew almost every street, alley, and shortcut in the city, helping him get fire engines to alarms faster. He was a master at managing 25 battalions, 96 engines, some 60 ladder trucks, 4 squads, dozens of special apparatuse and a fleet of ambulances all stationed out of 96 firehouses.  He knew most everyone by memory.

I was privileged to be invited by Ken Little, the senior fire alarm operator. to spend a full night in the main fire alarm office within city hall.

One night when the fire radio was quiet,  I watched in amazement while the other fire alarm operators played a trivia game of sorts during quiet minutes in the wee hours. . One operator would call out and address, for example “2517 W. Carmen”. The other operators would think for what seemed like only a second or two, and one would respond “two story, grey frame residence, no garage”.

I heard that Another quiz they would play would be to  name  every bar and grocery store on Western Avenue from Howard to 119th Street, Ken and the fire alarm operators knew the city, streets and the buildings so well from memory! Ken and others would often spend their days off driving the city learning and memorizing more of the city. The phenomenal skill of these guys were an enormous asset to fire department and to the citizens of Chicago, all of this before computers and Google Maps..

In his 36-year career, he saved lives and property by having a second sense for where the fire companies were at any one moment and which ones were closest to an incoming alarm. From the fire alarm office, he once helped save the famous German bar and restaurant, Schulien’s at 2100 W. Irving Park Rd., He’d heard a radio message of a Snorkel squad heading back to quarters after a fire. Minutes later, a call came in about flames at Schulien’s. Ken reasoned, “if they’re going back to quarters, they have to be going down Western Avenue,” his son Philip Little recalled. Ken contacted that squad instead of the fire companies that normally would have been called, and found it was at Irving and Western. Those firefighters got to the restaurant in just seconds and quickly put out the fire.

Born in Chicago to Mark John and Mary Little on December 10, 1932,  he grew up in in Old Town and hung around a firehouse at North and Hudson, listening to radio calls.   When he got a little older, he used buses, streetcars and the L to visit every city firehouse. He also rode the #49 Western Ave. bus 24 miles from one end of the city to the other, the city’s longest street..  He got out and walked to learn shortcuts and one-way streets.

After Ken joined the Chicago Fire Alarm Office in 1957  a fire raged through the Chicago City Council chambers, he received a commendation for staying at his post, as he and dispatchers worked above the fire in the Fire Alarm Office. Back then, calls of fires came from the red, free-standing Gamewell fire-alarm boxes on the street, often in front of schools and hospitals. . Other calls came in on phone number FI 7-1313. In September 1976 the direct dial 911 system retiring 1313.

During the Blizzard of ’67, Ken stayed in the office for 36 hours. He taught history at Wright College and was a regular guest on the old Eddie Schwartz radio show when Eddie hosted Chicago Trivia evenings on the air. He helped found the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, which has a library named in his honor.

Kenneth F Little, Senior Fire Alarm Operator (retired) and Chicago Fire Department historian died on December 8 2017.  He and his wife Alice, who died in 1986, had 10 children, including triplets.  He is survived by daughters Anna, Rita, and Mary Ellen, sons Phillip,  Kenneth, Robert, Stephen, Richard, and Raymond and four grandchildren. His son Thomas died in 1998.A funeral Mass was said in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 1633 n Cleveland

He was then buried in All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines.

In the tradition of the Fire Department telegraph system,  the code 3-3-5 tapped out from the master key in the Chicago Fire Alarm Office, where he labored for 37 years , signified  “returned to quarters”

He indeed “returned to quarters”.

 And may I add “Well done good and faithful servant”

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