Preparing for a Major Fire Department Celebration

Article and photos by Brian Stoothoff

Every fire department, including your agency, will have major anniversaries. How well you prepare for them will determine if the date will pass quietly into oblivion or your agency will host a memorable celebration. Golden anniversaries (50 years), diamond jubilees (75 years), and centennial celebrations (100 years) are chronologically a few monumental milestones that come to mind when thinking of major anniversaries. Celebrations can happen more often; however, and I encourage you to think outside the box and be creative if your department needs a little publicity. In fact, every year may be an opportunity to showcase your department. Anniversary celebrations can be a terrific venue for informing the public about the service your agency provides and offering an opportunity to build positive public relations. 


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.


Ocala Fire Rescue, 1915.  
The city of Ocala is situated in north central Florida, 80 miles north of Orlando; 55,000 residents call Ocala home; more than double that number travel into the city most days to work and to shop. Ocala Fire Rescue is one of the busiest and oldest fire departments in the state. Formed in 1885 after a devastating fire occurred in the downtown area, the city fathers and its citizens quickly realized a need for a full-time fire department. Today the department is staffed by 146 career firefighters and support personnel staffing six fire stations, administration, and a communications center. All of the engine and rescue companies are advanced life support units. The ISO rating is three. The department has progressed from hand-pulled apparatus to horse power (fire horses served from 1894-1916), to today’s modern department.


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.  

My first task was to talk with the fire chief to share my enthusiasm and receive permission to proceed with the planning process. After getting the go-ahead from the fire chief to put together an anniversary celebration, my initial goals were to determine a location for the event and choose a date for the following year. Through extensive research on our department’s history, I learned that the first reading of a city council ordinance to create our fire department was in March 1885. The second and final reading establishing the City of Ocala Fire Department was in May 1885.
My initial thought was to pick an arbitrary date on a Saturday in April. I conferred with the city administrators and the Chamber of Commerce. I also devised a short list of ideal places to hold the celebration. Directly across the street from the main fire station is a 34-four acre park containing a lake, tennis courts, basketball courts, and lots of green grass. Calendars fill up fast. Even at this early date (13 months away), other organizations had booked the park for almost all the Saturdays. A group called “Art in the Park” had been sponsoring a chalk festival for the past six years on a Saturday during the month of April. Children, for a small fee, can receive a box of professional-grade chalk and are assigned a sidewalk square in which to draw some art and have fun. The all-day festival is usually promoted throughout all the schools in the county. I thought partnering with Art in the park might be a win-win situation. It could benefit from the additional people the fire department could attract, and we could benefit from the publicity and exposure in all the county schools. 
The next step was to establish an ad-hoc committee to gather ideas and make some decisions. In May 2009, we held our first committee meeting. My only request was that proposed committee members have an interest. Five people showed up. I wanted to have a committee that was not too large or too small, and this was just about perfect. The committee agreed that the proposed date for an anniversary celebration, Saturday, April 17, would work for three reasons: The date was historically accurate as to the time of year the fire department was established; the spring weather probably would be ideal in Florida (temperatures would be moderate with a low chance of rain); and Art in the Park would be a mutually beneficial partnership. The committee also agreed that the location in Tuscawilla Park across from the main fire station would be the best choice in which to hold the celebration. After this first meeting with the committee, I met with Art in the Park representatives, who were equally excited about this proposed joint endeavor. Soon after, permits and official documents were signed, and the deal was struck.        
The committee met monthly and held 10 meetings overall. Many ideas were discussed by the committee, including decals for the apparatus to advertise the anniversary, commemorative flags for the station flag poles, billboards and entertainment for the event, to name a few topics. You may choose to adopt some of these ideas for your major celebration.
  • 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.
Time Line and Historical Photographs

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. 

Commemorative fire station flag.  


 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.


Banner over roadway.
One of our firefighters designed a mural for a billboard. The ad-hoc committee approved the design, and a contract was signed with a billboard company. The mural promoting the fire department anniversary was on display for one month in a high-traffic area within the city. The billboard slogan on the bottom read, “Come Celebrate History with Us.”
We designed a flier for storefront windows advertising the anniversary celebration. I heard many suggestions from people on when to begin advertising. Many magazines and advertising publications require as much as six months advance notice to have an article placed because of deadlines; we were able to meet the deadlines. We contacted radio stations so that interviews could be arranged. Most radio stations prerecorded the interview to be played at a later date; several live interviews were arranged during the week approaching the anniversary celebration.
We distributed copies of the flier to the engine companies to distribute in their assigned district beginning three weeks before the celebration. Storefront windows, workplace employee bulletin boards, and community bulletin boards are a few ideal locations. Fliers were distributed to schools in the community, and a video produced by two of our firefighters was created to promote the event. This video was delivered to each school to help get the word out.

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.


Billboard advertisement.  
Live Entertainment

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.

Face painting.

Sidewalk chalk art.  

Antique Apparatus


One of dozens of antique vehicles.  

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.


1890 Fire apparatus won People’s Choice 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. 


Firefighters demonstrate removing a windshield.   

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.

If you are hosting an event and restroom facilities are not adequate, portable toilets will have to be made available.
In our situation, a rain date was not feasible because apparatus owners were arriving from around the state and massive preparations had to be in place. There is a sizeable public building adjacent to Tuscawilla Park. Should the weather have been inclement, the opening ceremony would have been held indoors. If your situation allows, consider a rain date as a backup plan.


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.

Medical Standby

 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.  

Fire Tent

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.

Gift Bags

Gift bags, made up in advance, were distributed to designated volunteers and dignitaries on the day of the anniversary. The Chamber of Commerce or visitor’s center in your jurisdiction may be a good starting point if you are in need of promotional items. Our gift bags also included, as already noted, a department ball cap and literature. They were given to the owners of antique apparatus, police department volunteers, and visiting dignitaries. This is very good public relations opportunity to say “thanks,” and it doesn’t cost much.  

Opening Ceremony

The Honor Guard during the opening ceremony.


Mayor Randy Ewers and Chief Ganter at the podium.
On April 17, 2010, the much awaited celebration took place. Soon after sunrise, the day began with antique apparatus arriving from around the state of Florida. The oldest vehicle was an 1890 Howe horse-drawn pumper. The vehicle that travelled the farthest was a 1974 California Highway Patrol sedan based in Ft. Lauderdale. Twenty antique vehicles were displayed, including several historical ambulances. The kick-off ceremony was preceded by the Ocala Fire Rescue’s honor guard marching in bright sunlight to present the colors along with a bag piper, whose sounds pierced the crisp morning air. The fire department chaplains were present, and the mayor presented a proclamation to Chief Jim Ganter. Dignitaries included city management, three city council members, a county commissioner, and a representative of Congressman Cliff Stearns and Florida Representative Kurt Kelly’s office. The day was full of fun, consisting of fire station tours, face painting, children’s activities, fire department auto extrication demonstrations, an antique apparatus display, and Art in the Park sidewalk chalk competition. We could not have asked for a better day; all who attended had a marvelous time. The chalk festival resulted in outstanding art work, and a crowd of 5,000 citizens attended the celebration.  

After-Action Review

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.  

As part of the after-action review, formalize a list of people and organizations to thank for assisting you. This small task will reap large returns now and in the future. I asked the fire chief to sign certificates of appreciation, which we framed. After the anniversary celebration, I delivered these certificates to each of the participants who donated their time or resources. 
 If your department will celebrate a major anniversary in the future, it is not too early to start planning now. The effort you put into it will be appreciated by your members and the citizens in your community.
Note: Brian Stoothoff  wrote a book on Ocala Fire Rescue’s 125th anniversary. The 100-page. Soft-cover spiral-bound book contains more than 100 full-color photos and contains the history, a photo gallery, and information on the current fire stations and apparatus of the department.
Brian Stoothoff is a 28-year member of Ocala (FL) Fire Rescue. He is serving as a battalion chief in charge of public education, public information, and special projects. He can be reached at (352)629-8306 or by e-mail:


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