The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: History, Heritage, and Pride

By Thomas A. Merrill

Most, if not all, volunteer fire departments have a rich and vibrant history. The departments were founded by regular citizens, who often pitched in their own money, muscle, and equipment to build the firehouse and purchase necessary supplies. They demonstrated incredible determination and resilience. They ran countless picnics, field days, and various other events to help build the treasury. They fought fires with little to no turnout gear, cotton hose, and primitive tools. The stories are endless, entertaining and colorful. But do our firefighters today know these stories and appreciate where they come from? What is your department doing to share that information?

Sharing and celebrating your department's history is a great way to build department pride, and the professional volunteer fire department should certainly be proud.

Storytelling does not have to mean a boring history lesson that has people yawning. There are a variety of methods to educate your own members and the public in an informative and entertaining manner, and it is important to do so.

TRACKING DOWN HISTORY

One of the biggest obstacles to getting started is obtaining the stories and names from the past. Many of the founding members, early contributors, and important leaders have passed on. Unfortunately, they have taken many of the great stories with them. How do we get those stories back?

First of all, start with those members you still have, even if not active responders anymore. Track them down. Ask them about their early experiences. Who was chief and president? Where were the big fires? What equipment did they have? What kind of turnout gear? What were the controversial events of the day? Record it all--the good and the bad, the important and maybe even the seemingly trivial.

If possible, read the old minutes. So much information can be gathered from the minutes if your department is lucky enough to have them. In addition to the department meeting minutes, there are often minutes available from various committees and other governing boards, such as the board of directors. All of these can provide great insight into a department and help paint the picture as to how the department formed and evolved. As you prowl through the minutes, take notes of the significant incidents, the elections, and the interesting and important events that helped shape your department.

Next, comb through those department file cabinets. Chances are they haven't been gone through in years. You will be quite surprised at what you will find: membership files, applications, and historical memorabilia galore! Organize it and categorize it in some manner. As you do this, you will begin to understand your department's history.

Keep your eyes open for any published historical references that list your department. When you see something, copy it, and then dig deeper. Our local community newspaper has a regular column that highlights events that occurred in our town 50, 75, and 100 years ago. Often times a reference is made to a fire, election, or some other event involving our fire department. Once we have identified an event and know the time period, we can consult the newspapers from that time and learn even more. Sometimes there may even be photos to scan to add to the collection.

Keep an eye out for old documents and photos via Internet sites such as eBay and Craigslist. I found a receipt dated back to the early 1900s that belonged to a company owned by our first fire chief. The receipt very clearly had his signature on it and was a wonderful piece of memorabilia for us to have. I was able to purchase the receipt (for a whopping $1), and it now sits proudly in one of our display cases, complete with the story of our first chief, the business he owned, and his significant contributions to our department.

Every now and then we will have former members or family members of former members stop by the firehouse. Often these visitors fondly reminisce about the time years ago when they were affiliated with the department. During the course of our conversation we often hear stories and gather information about our department that is new to us. We also often discover that they have photos and other department memorabilia tucked away in their homes. We have had great success getting things donated to us, or at the very least, in the case of photos, loaned to us so we can make copies.

Once you compile the names, stories, significant incidents and other facts, start putting all the pieces together and get your department's history written. Maybe you are lucky and already have a well-written, in-depth history. If so, simply add to it as you find additional important information. Revise what you have as new information is uncovered. Remember to update it as time marches on. I like to update ours at least once a year to include major purchases, new officers, and other important milestones.

Now that you have it, share it! Share it not only with your community, but your own membership as well. Share those photos, those stories, those artifacts. Sharing and celebrating your history and heritage helps build department pride.

MEMORABILIA AND MORE

Dig out the old photos your department owns. Ask members and former members to dig out the ones they own as well. Clean them up, reframe them, and hang the photos that highlight important events in your department's history: the first apparatus, the first station, the ground breakings, the big fires. Many departments have a wall of photos honoring past chiefs and presidents--a great idea and a wonderful tribute to those who served. Take it a step further and show off photos of regular firefighters who may have only spent a few years in before moving on. Most importantly, try to accurately identify what is happening in the photo and who is in them. This is where faces can be put with the stories. An old family member once told me that nobody is really gone so long as there are photos around to remember them by. This is one way to remember and pay tribute to your firefighters who served over the years.

It is especially important to remember any firefighters who have died in the line of duty. If your department had the misfortune to experience a line of duty death, there should be a display and tribute to that firefighter as well. My own department has experienced two line-of-duty deaths in our nearly 100-year existence, but until we moved into a new firehouse in 1997 there was no tribute or memorial, not even a photo. Now, nobody can enter our building without seeing plaques honoring our two fallen comrades.

Have any members of your department served with distinction during wartime? Is there some type of display honoring your veterans? I have seen exhibits in firehouses honoring their military members. Some have their medals, uniforms, and letters of commendation and stories of their exploits. Again, my own department was the victim of forgetting and it amazes me that this story was lost to time: It was only recently that we learned one of our junior members joined the Navy and was killed during the early days in World War II. This information was lost for decades. Now he will never be forgotten because we have been able to tell his story via photos and other items prominently displayed in our main hallway. Our firefighters are so proud that they serve in the same department that his American hero did.

Try and display old memorabilia and tools of the trade. Every department has stuff tucked away in the attic or basement or out in the equipment locker. Get it out and show it off and get people talking about it. Share that heritage. Not only are these artifacts fun to look at and talk about, but they are great to show visitors to the firehouse a well.

Having photos, artifacts, and other memorabilia prominently displayed throughout your firehouse is a great way to quietly tell your department's story and invoke pride among the ranks. As people wander the halls and go about their daily routine, there are subtle reminders of those firefighters who served before, their sacrifices and their stories. It lets today's members understand and appreciate the fact that they share an incredible legacy and they are part of an organization that has a proud and rich history.

Make sure you share your story with your members. Let them know right away what they are getting involved in. Celebrate your history and talk about your heritage and start building that pride beginning their first day in the department. Take new members for a walk through the building and show them the photos and explain the memorials and the meaning of the plaques and other artifacts and memorabilia on display.

You can develop a drill presentation telling your department's story. Point out that every member who ever served has contributed to the department's story in some way. Some have written a sentence or two, some have written chapters, and some maybe several chapters. But linked together, they all complete the book. That book is your fire department history and heritage.

Share the story of the fire service as well. Explain how the volunteer fire service formed and developed in your area along with the story of how the fire service formed and grew throughout the United States. If your community is lucky enough to have a fire museum, schedule a tour to further the learning experience

Compile a department Web site with a history section and plenty of photos. Develop a Facebook page. Show off what you have with the community via department tours and open houses. Show the community how the department was formed and evolved into what it is today.

As I mentioned earlier, former members will occasionally stop for a visit at the firehouse. A few years ago, an elderly man stopped by our station with his son and grandson. The elderly man's son politely explained that his father was a member of our department back in the 1940s. He served only a short time because he left for service in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he moved out of our state and got on with his life and career. On the day of their impromptu visit, we welcomed them, invited them in, and gave them a firehouse tour. As we walked down one of the hallways, the elderly man suddenly stopped, grabbed my arm, and pointed excitedly at an old black-and-white photo hanging on the wall. The photo was taken at our installation dinner in 1943. He pointed out that he was in the photo. We took the photo off the wall, sat in our clubroom, and listened as he read off the names of many of his friends and comrades from yesteryear. As you can imagine, he was pretty excited to look over this photo and, even though touched with dementia, he was able to tell some fire department stories, talk about some great experiences, and remember some long-gone friends from his time in the fire service. I looked away for a few moments and talked to his son and grandson. When I looked back, I saw that he was slouched back slightly in his chair; he seemed to be in deep thought, and it was then that I noticed a small tear coming out of his eye, rolling down his cheek. Here was a man who was part of the Greatest Generation, who experienced an incredible adventure by serving in World War II, settled down, raised a family, and started and retired from a very successful career well out of our area. But here in the twilight of his life, after a lifetime of incredible memories, what one memory still resonated within him, still sparking such strong, passionate, and heartfelt emotions? Memories of time spent (not even two years) in our fire department almost 70 years ago!

The pride that resonated through our clubroom at that moment was unbelievable. Our firefighters were beaming. His family was so grateful and appreciative. By simply preserving and displaying some dusty old black-and-white photos, we were showing that we would never forget and would we honored and paid tribute to those firefighters who served before us. Doing these simple things sends a powerful message and invokes powerful emotions.

We have so much to be proud of in the volunteer fire service. I am sure you have so much to be proud of in your own particular department. Celebrate it. Share it! That history, heritage and pride is an important part of the professional volunteer fire department.

Tom MerrillTom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com

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