Smoke filled the air. Not the dangerous kind that sets off a sensitive fire alarm, but the aromatic smoke of a BBQ. Michael Myers, retired volunteer fireman, stands beside a large pot bellied grill. On the street, sirens shriek as children parade in the street, throwing out candy and waving. The fire trucks, all their sirens running and their lights flashing, drive slowly down the street in celebration of the school’s homecoming, the volunteers who participate in various outreaches within the community, and the triumphant band and color guard.
Myers takes his warm fur lined cap off and nods at the fire chief who leads in the first bright red engine. Tears mist his eyes. “Aside from when they need us, this is one of the few times that the community remembers and honors the firefighters who guard them,” Myers says. He replaces his cap, covering his thick mass of curly white hair. “If I could, I’d be right up there with them.” Arthritis and a bad back keep Myers from volunteering as he used to, and though the fire station had offered to let him ride with them, he declined. “This moment is for all of them,” he says. “These men and women lay their lives on the line with every call they answer. People don’t think of that too much. But that’s okay. That’s the way it should be. We are always on call so that they can go on leading their lives.”
As the parade concludes, the crowd disperses to partake in the festive foods. From elephant ears to smoked pork chops to fried okra, the fair cuisine becomes once more the focus. With a smile on his face, the tears wiped away, Myers begins serving charbroiled ribs and grilled salt water corn. Still serving his community, though perhaps in a less dramatic way, Myers is a fine example of those who serve in our fire departments.
The first fire recorded in the United States was in Jamestown, shortly after the settlers established their colony. The fire almost destroyed the town before it was put out, and a few scattered documents indicate that discussion began over how such fires could be prevented. Unfortunately, a much larger fire burned Boston in 1631.
The man who came up with the solution? None other than Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the eye glass, productivity expert, developer of the Constitution, and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
At that time, many of the cities had their own volunteer base. In some cities such as Philadelphia, everyone would come together to work and put out the fire. But Franklin argued that it was not enough. The cities need a force of people dedicated to fighting fires and better organized so that it would not be left to chance. While it might still be volunteer based, they would be better prepared.
It took a great deal of goading and an anonymous letter written under the persona of a much older man, but eventually Franklin convinced the city to allow a formal fire department. He brought together thirty men known as the Union Fire Company on December 7, 1736. When other men asked to join, Franklin recommended that they start their own organization so that there would be better protection. The Heart in Hand, the Fellowship, the Britannia, and others came about.
This model came into use in other cities. Volunteers joined the organization to help protect their communities. Among the early volunteers were George Washington, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton. Starting in 1818, women began serving as well, starting with Molly Williams. These men and later women were generally not paid. They purchased their equipment from fire insurance payments and the like.
The volunteer based fire fighting organizations reached a very low point in the 1850s and 1860s. Donations and insurance payments were not enough, and there were concerns about inefficiency and disorder, particularly in the cities which were now more heavily populated.
The new fire departments were built around specialized equipment. The most notable addition was the fire truck. The steam pump fire engine was first introduced in London in 1829. But it came to the United States by the 1850s and played a crucial role in fighting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The steam engine was the focal point of the fire departments of this time. Volunteer fire organizations still existed, but they began to fade out of the larger cities and maintain their work in the more rural areas.
The transition to fire departments did not remove the volunteer firefighters. In many cases, only a few were actually paid professionals, but for most of the rural and small towns, they relied on the volunteer firefighters. The transition did, however, help the nation to create uniformity and regularity within the fire departments, training them more in how to respond.
Volunteer and career firefighters have always sought to save people, animals, and property. But at the turn of the century with advances in medicine, the duties of both groups expanded. Starting with more advanced medical and emergency treatment techniques and expanding to hazardous materials mitigation (HAZMAT) and search rescue, fire fighters now serve on a much broader scale.
With the internal combustion engine and public funding for some departments, the fire departments accepted their much expanded duties. The twentieth century saw an explosion in both technology and duties. The fire departments, both professional and volunteer, now respond to all manner of catastrophes. In 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake struck and tore the city apart for 90 minutes, the firefighters were among those responding to the crisis and rescuing the survivors.
At all of the major catastrophes from the Great Fires to the San Francisco Earthquake to 9/11, firefighters have laid their lives on the line to save those whose lives are in danger. Today, they are available 24/7, ready for the fires and catastrophes which might strike.
Over three fourths of our nation’s firefighters today are volunteers. They proudly offer their services and care for their communities.