(Appeared in print as "Knowledge Gained — and Shared — is Something Worth Celebrating")
The U.S. fire service has a very rich history. Some say it dates back as far as 1648with the original fire codes written by Gov. Peter Stuyvesant, while others look to Benjamin Franklin as being the first fire chief in the American colonies. But we don’t have to look that far back to experience the tradition that is the fire service, especially in volunteer or combination departments. Recently, I attended two receptions honoring volunteers with 50years of service to their departments — both started in the fire service as teenagers and I have had the pleasure of working with both over the course of my career.
Colerain Township (Ohio) Div. Chief Darrell Brown was honored for his service that dates back to 1961, when he joined the fledgling Dunlap Volunteer Fire Department. Brown was a lieutenant on that department when Dunlap, along with the Groesbeck Fire Department — where I was a member — were the primary elements that merged to become the Colerain Township Fire Department in 1975.
That department remains one of the leading combination departments in the state with 53 career and 110 part-time firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. While Brown was an officer on the operations side for the majority of his tenure, he later transitioned into becoming the department’s human relations officer. None of us really know the exact number of firefighters who started their service with Colerain and later moved on to a career position with another department, but those they serve truly benefit from the fire and EMS experience they possess and put to great use as they cover the largest township in the state of Ohio. In large part, this depth of knowledge and experience is epitomized by Brown.
The other honoree is a member of my own department, Lt. Tom Schneider. Wyoming Fire–EMS is celebrating three major anniversaries this year: our 120th year as a fire department; our 50th year of providing emergency medical services; and the 45th year of our Fire Cadet Program. Schneider is the only original member of the Wyoming Life Squad still a resident of the city. He still is active as a volunteer officer and is responsible for overseeing the maintenance and readiness of our two advanced life support units. For many years, this service was part of the Wyoming Police Department; later it was an independent agency and finally merged into the Wyoming Fire–EMS in 2003. Schneider was 18when he volunteered and his 50years of emergency medical service has seen a lot of change.
In the beginning, the service was provided with a Cadillac ambulance and members trained in advanced first aid by the American Red Cross. Schneider helped transition the department to state-certified EMTs and then to a paramedic service in the 1970s and 1980s. He also has written most of the specifications for nearly every EMS vehicle purchased over these 50years. This dedication is typical of the volunteer spirit that continues with us today.
Wyoming also is fortunate to have several living inactive members, such as former Capt. Bob Unger and Safety Officer Bill Mercer, who still recall many of the faces on photos in the department’s archives and at our local historical society.
So why is it important to honor members such as these? First, as we research these milestone anniversaries, members like them each provide a living history of the community and those members who preceded us. They remind us that the department has survived in both good times and bad times, while weathering wars or economic crises such as the Great Depression, and without missing a day of service. They remind us that over the years, the fire service itself has expanded its role over and over again in the delivery of emergency services. Our members now handle rescue, extrication, hazmat, mass casualty, emergency management, and response to incidents of homeland security. Almost daily we help our neighboring communities in an area that extends the boundaries of our first alarm response.
Second, these members provide us with an oral — or in some cases a written and photographic — history of the department. Tradition handed down from generation to generation of Wyoming firefighters tells us that in 1892our fire department when founded consisted of little more than a wagon and hose cart stationed at the livery stable near the railroad tracks that traverse our city. Several of our retired members tell us that by 1911, when we moved to our first fire station, that the city had installed 36fire alarm boxes, which transmitted a signal into the alarm room located in city hall. Then, a large bell in the tower of that building was struck, which brought firefighters to the station. This is a far cry from pagers and today’s state-of-the-art technology that lets volunteers speed-dial a phone number, after which their names immediately are displayed on a response board, indicating to the officer in charge who is responding to the station and when they will arrive.
Third, these veteran members provide our younger firefighters and EMTs with a wealth of knowledge and life experience. Sometimes I wish there was a data port on each of them so that we could plug-in a thumb drive and download all of their relevant emergency experiences, then upload them to the newer members in order to take advantage of their collective knowledge. The next best thing, however, is to provide a venue where these veterans and newcomers can interact and hear about these experiences.
Let me give you an example. Early in my career, I was talking to a veteran firefighter who asked me if I knew what was meant by the term “white ghost.” He explained that this referred to the phenomenon that occurs when a fuel oil furnace malfunctions, which results in an explosive mixture of air and fuel in a confined space such as a basement. He indicated that white cloud was a telltale sign to immediately vacate the confined space and clear the building. It was several years later, as an officer, that I recognized this phenomenon and successfully backed out the inside crews.
Finally, we need to honor and acknowledge that so much is owed to the firefighters, officers and chiefs who previously have served and had the foresight to keep the department on a progressive track. These are the individuals who helped open the door for a more diverse department and workplace that more closely mirrors the community. Departments such as Colerain and Wyoming are a mix of men and women, young and old, representing nearly every ethnicity. Such departments remain viable because their strength comes from the diversity of their people, and that is worth celebrating.