Article and photos by Brian Stoothoff
Does your fire department have a historian? A person who has a perspective on your agency’s past might be invaluable for planning your next celebration. Some departments have officially designated an individual to assume this role. In my case, I just naturally became the “unofficial” historian based on my length of service and having an interest in the subject. I was hired as a firefighter in 1982 and, without much thought, just started saving newspaper clippings of rescue calls I participated in. I also had an interest in talking with our retirees and learning the history of our fire department. All of this knowledge that I gradually acquired would serve me well 20-plus years later. Every department needs a historian. Consider obtaining a filing cabinet or other designated area to permanently store archives and items of interest for future use for your department. Newspaper clippings and memorabilia should be saved for future generations to appreciate.
In January 2009, I attended the Fire Rescue East convention in Daytona Beach. The weekend of the convention also happened to be the time when the Daytona Beach Fire Department was hosting its centennial celebration. With camera in hand, I visited the main fire station and talked to some of the personnel. I came away with lots of photos and ideas of what I had seen. During the convention, I met some of the visiting antique apparatus owners who told me car clubs often book engagements one year in advance. As the special events coordinator for my department, I returned home knowing I had to get busy in preparing for our 125th anniversary.
- Form a committee.
- One year lead time may be required.
- Prioritize a “to do” list, and frequently update it.
- Visit other fire department celebrations for ideas.
- Designate a photographer.
- Prepare a budget.
- Delegate responsibilities.
One of the ideas I had seen in Daytona Beach was a 100-year time-line poster of the highlights of the department. I decided it was worth the time to research our department’s history and to create our own time line. I created a document that was framed and placed on permanent display in each of our fire stations. The time line lists important dates such as when fire stations were built, the names of the fire chiefs when they were appointed, and interesting facts such as the number of hours in a work week (Ocala firemen worked 149 continuous hours a week in 1929). The time line will serve as a permanent reminder to our visitors and firefighters of our extensive history. I also framed a collection of historical photos from the 19th and 20th centuries featuring the fire department and placed different photographs in each fire station. Your agency might want to consider these two projects. Although it takes time to gather the required information to create a time line, the cost involved for framing these items can be minimal.
Apparatus Decals / Station Commemorative Flags
Although the committee considered decals for our fire apparatus to help advertise our 125 years of service, we decided against them because there wasn’t a uniform area on all apparatus to place the decals and also of the cost involved. We did create a commemorative flag for the fire stations. One of our firefighters who does excellent design and graphic work presented some preliminary sketches to the committee. The committee put the project out for bid and ultimately ordered the flags which are currently displayed on each our fire station flag poles under the American flag. The slogan on the bottom of the flag reads, “125 Years of Bravery.” A commemorative flag is a nice way to advertise your anniversary all year long, not just on the day of the celebration.
Ocala firefighters are represented by the International Association of Firefighters Local #2135. Union membership designed and had available commemorative T-shirts for the celebration. The sale of T-shirts was a huge success; the shirts sold out in one day. Commemorative coins and other items were also available for purchase. Your agency may choose to offer items for sale to raise funds.
The City of Ocala has designated locations on several main thoroughfares where approved and professionally designed banners can be displayed above the traffic lanes. One of the many things I learned in preparing for our anniversary celebration is that only once a year during a specified time period can an agency submit an application to be considered in our city, on a first-come-first-served basis. The benefit of planning early is that when the appropriate time arrived I had the application filled out and ready to go. Our committee approved a sketch submitted by one of our firefighters, and a local company made two banners to the required specifications. The 36-foot-wide banners were then displayed for the week of our anniversary celebration for tens of thousands of our citizens to see. When the banners were taken down after the event, I decided to put them to further use. One now hangs permanently on our main fire station’s apparatus bay wall; the other is in our archives. The slogan on the bottom of the banner reads, “Saving Lives Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” If your community does not allow roadside banners, you might consider having one made to hang on the exterior of your fire station.
Invitations were designed and mailed to dignitaries and VIPs a few weeks in advance. If your department has some talented individuals, most of the advertising can be done for very little cost. Ask your firefighters to assist in distributing fliers throughout your community.
Our partnership with Art in the Park chalk festival was an easy solution to providing entertainment. Art in the Park already had experience inviting middle and elementary school bands to perform. If your community is considering using live entertainment, begin negotiating with your school district as early as possible. We ended up with 10 school groups performing for 30 minutes each on stage. This definitely can be a rewarding and inexpensive way to entertain guests.
Sidewalk chalk art.
After learning that antique apparatus owners often book events a year in advance, I started reaching out to vehicle enthusiasts and people I knew. I attended a few local car shows in the summer of 2009 to gather ideas. Not having any experience in this area, I asked lots of questions and presented an action plan to the committee. We designed a flier advertising our planned anniversary antique apparatus show and distributed it to trade magazines and auto groups. In keeping with the anniversary theme, we limited our vehicle show to emergency apparatus: antique fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars. Over the next few months, I received dozens of phone calls and e-mails from vehicle owners who voiced an interest in attending. One month prior to our celebration, we printed information sheets to be placed in the vehicle windshields on the day of the event. The printed informational flier contained an assigned vehicle number so that the public could vote for their favorite vehicle. Three “People’s Choice” trophies were awarded. Ballot fliers were distributed on the day of the anniversary celebration. Of course, we made a ballot box for the ballots. Dozens of antiques were on display; the oldest was an 1890 Howe horse-drawn apparatus. The antique vehicles were certainly one of the highlights of our 125th anniversary celebration. On the day of the event, all apparatus owners were given a gift bag that included a fire department ball cap to thank them for attending our celebration. They were also given a coupon for free lunch. The apparatus owner who drove the farthest was from Fort Lauderdale, a 300-mile distant. At 1:30 p.m., the ballots for People’s Choice were counted. At 2:30 p.m., the winners were announced. Three lucky antique apparatus owners received a trophy.
Vehicle Extrication Demonstrations
We obtained four vehicles at no cost from a salvage yard for vehicle extrication demonstrations.. Arrangements were made to have the vehicles dropped off on the afternoon prior to the anniversary celebration. The demonstrations were very popular with the citizens. An amplification system was used so that a firefighter could narrate the events occurring during the demonstrations. We used fire line tape to secure a designated work area to keep viewers at a safe distance.
Fire Station Tours
Guided tours of the Tuscawilla Park fire station were offered every 30 minutes throughout the day. A sign-up sheet was available; each tour was limited to 25 people. This proved to be very successful and was well attended. Fire station tours can be organized or haphazard. In our situation, the tours were guided to assist in an orderly arrangement for safety and security reasons. In retrospect, we could have assigned additional staff to this function. Firefighters everywhere enjoy showing off their home and apparatus to folks of all ages.
We contacted the city to arrange for a portable stage and sound system to be set up in the park. Trash disposal is also a logistical concern that must be addressed. The city was also very helpful in having traffic cones and signage available. Several traffic directional signs were moved into position the day before the celebration to instruct motorists on road closures and parking instructions. These arrangements also have to be initiated months in advance.
Lighted directional street sign.
The local Lions club had an agreement with Art in the Park in previous years to provide food and beverages for their annual event. The ad-hoc committee voted to let the Lions handle the logistics of the food for our joint celebration. I suppose you could make a lot of money by selling food, but there is a cost outlay, and the fire chief requested that we not get involved in handling money or providing the upfront costs associated with purchasing the food. Again, this was a win-win situation for us. The vendors were happy, and the firefighters did not have to worry about any of the logistics involved with food purchasing or preparation.
An emcee keeps the day’s activities running smoothly. A well-known radio personality was our emcee. Don’t forget to thank this person. We arranged that he receive a coupon for free food and gave him a gift bag on the day of the event. A few weeks after the event, I went to his office and presented him with a framed certificate of appreciation on the behalf of the fire department.
Ocala Fire Rescue has provided advanced life support service to the community since 1977. We have in our rolling stock two golf cart-sized vehicles that can be used for large-scale public events. These vehicles are outfitted with medical equipment, and each was staffed by an emergency medical technician and a paramedic. The assigned medical personnel also were issued a portable radio with tactical channels to communicate with dispatch personnel and command staff.
Radio Communications/Volunteer Groups
Two weeks prior to the event, a meeting was held with a communications officer to discuss a common radio tactical channel that all agencies working the event could share. The police department has a group of uniformed volunteers who have access to marked patrol vehicles. This group was charged with keeping traffic approaching the park orderly. Marked patrol vehicles blocked traffic at controlled intersections and handled parking issues. This group of volunteers arrived early and was of huge assistance in successfully controlling the crowds. I met with all the volunteers for an early-morning briefing on the day of the event. We also checked the portable radios to ensure that all were properly working and everyone was able to communicate on a common radio channel. In addition to the volunteers, the police department also has a junior Explorer group. These uniformed young adults were enlisted to walk the park to distribute maps and programs and answer questions.
A tent belonging to the fire department was used as a command post. Folding tables were used to display fire safety literature. Coloring books and plastic fire hats were popular with the children; whereas adults were interested in obtaining information on our city’s free smoke alarm program. Guests could drop off their ballots with their selections for their favorite antique vehicles at the tent. Maps of the park and a program of the day’s activities were also available at the tent. Historical photographs of the fire department were put on display.
Fire Rescue tent.
The Honor Guard during the opening ceremony.
A few weeks after the celebration, the ad-hoc committee met for one final meeting. A critique was performed to gather input of what was done right and what we could have improved on. One of my goals was to take an abundance of photographs to record the event. Although I did carry a camera, I found myself directing activities to ensure things were running smoothly and answering questions. I did not take as many photographs as I would have liked. Designate a person specifically for this role. Also, when planning for a major event, make sure you have adequate assistance so that you can delegate tasks.