Walk into the Washington Fire Department’s headquarters on 14th Street and one of the first things you’ll see is a display case filled with memorabilia — cone-shaped buckets, 100-plus-year-old ribbons worn by members to signify their section and rank, a silver loving cup the department gave to Chief Herman Grohe (1905-1921) when he retired, old helmets, axes . . .
Down a hallway are photos of the department’s past chiefs.
In the lower level, historic tools and pieces of appartus are on display — a set of circa 1875 Pompier ladders that could be used to climb any size building, the circa 1859 bell that originally hung in House 1 at city hall, an old hose cart . . .
So it’s clear that history is important to the men and women of the Washington Volunteer Fire Company, and Fire Chief Bill Halmich says there’s a reason for that.
“It’s written on the Senate wall up in Jefferson City: ‘Past is prologue.’ That pretty much explains it,” he remarked.
It’s been 160 years since the Washington Fire Department was organized. A history book the department put together 10 years ago on its 150th anniversary notes the beginning was May 29, 1852, when town trustees ordered two 30-foot hooks and a 28-foot-long slide from carpenters Samuel Beecher and Lewis Johnson.
The items were stored at the homes of Beecher and another man, Bernard Fricke, who are credited as Washington’s first firefighters.
Later that year, the trustees ordered that a shed be built for the equipment, making it the town’s first firehouse.
Since then the Washington Fire Department has evolved many times over in terms of firehouses, appartus, equipment, techniques, even the types of calls they respond to. Today’s firefighters are called to medical emergencies, car accidents, chemical spills and leaks, meth labs, even pet rescues from trees, cliffs and lakes.
But the one thing that has remained the same these 160 years, said Halmich, are the characteristics that go with being a Washington volunteer firefighter.
“In 1852, a man’s beard was his SCBA (self-contained breathing appartus),” said Halmich.
“We’ve come full circle to where in 2012 you are in violation of policy if you wear an SCBA with a beard. So in that 160 years . . . the key thing that has kept it all together is the people.
“The landscape has changed, the apparatus has advanced and so on, but the people, the members of the organization have been able to progress and adapt and maintain the tradition of a volunteer organization.
“The fiber and the dedication of the people who step forward to volunteer today is what makes us exactly the same as the guys in 1852,” Halmich continued.
“The guy who was breathing through his beard didn’t have an SCBA, but he had dedication, commitment, desire to serve and those things are still there today.
“That’s how we are connected. That’s why history is so important, to maintain that connection.”
Currently there are 74 members of the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. That’s fewer than in the ’70s and ’80s, when there were as many as 90 members, said Halmich, but there also have been other times when membership was lower.
“All of the wars took a toll on membership,” he said. “The Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam . . . It was a struggle for the fire department to survive those years because large numbers of our members went off to war.
“It’s in the minutes where the fire company at one point reorganized to be able to function with fewer people.”
Today’s membership number is a sign of the times, said Halmich — “the demands on people, plus training has gone up.”
Not just anyone is able to be a Washington volunteer firefighter. You have to be 18 years old, a high school graduate and a Washington resident.
All members are required to be state certified firefighters, and there are minimum training and attendance requirements.
“We also do random drug testing to show the integrity of the group,” said Halmich.
Members are divided into sections, as they have been since 1852.
That’s an approach that “has proven to be very effective in battle,” Halmich noted, and the fire service is no different.
“We mix and match, we cross train, which has been a big plus, so drivers can drive multiple pieces of equipment.
“But when you organize the people into companies there is a pregone conclusion of which team is which,” he said. “That’s where your expertise is.”
The Big Ones
From its earliest years, the Washington Fire Department has had strong support from the community, in part because of some very destructive fires where people saw firsthand the devastation.
The Palm Sunday fire of March 28, 1920, is one of the biggest. The call came in at 12:30 p.m.
“The fire, which started near the chimney of the L. Aholt home on Klingsick Lane, quickly spread due to high winds of 50-60 miles per hour,” the fire department’s 150th anniversary book reads. “The fire ultimately destroyed a barn and shed south of the Dittmer house, as well as the roofs of the Dittmer house, Wilkerson’s stable, Ritter’s barn and at least a dozen sheds in the area.”
The Gambles Warehouse fire of May 1942 is another big one. Washington firefighters spent 30 hours fighting the fire on Front Street.
“Equipment from the Diamonds, Pacific and Union assisted in fighting the fire, along with men from the International and KDK shoe factories,” the history book reads. “Nine hose lines, using over 1,200 gallons of water per minute were laid.
“The Red Cross and the Chamber of Commerce combined efforts to serve 60 gallons of water and 500 sandwiches to weary volunteers fighting the fire, which ultimately caused an estimated $75,000 to $100,000 in damage.”
A newspaper clipping from The Washington Missourian on May 28, 1942, reported that “Dr. Elmar H. Schmidt, who is one of the oldest firemen in the city, said the only other fire in the city that compared to it was the Degen-Breckenkamp Manufacturing company and the Detmolt pipe factory fire, which were located on about the same site where the warehouse was located.
“That fire was in about 1901 and was the biggest one in the city’s history up to that time.”
Focus on Prevention
Up until a few years ago, the Washington Fire Department was averaging about 800 calls a year, and every year the number was pushed higher.
No more. The annual call volume is hundreds less.
Things changed about three years ago when the city put property maintenance codes in place, said Halmich. That means properties are inspected for safety hazards whenever the tenants change.
As a result, potential fire hazards are caught and corrected before there’s a problem, he noted.
So far this year, the Washington Fire Department has responded to about 500 calls.
Prevention became the focus of fire service in the 1970s after a report commissioned by the president to study fire alarms found America had the worst fire record of any industrialized nation, said Halmich, but it wasn’t a new concept.
“Our forefathers, actually, when you look back in history, they had in the farm codes that you were required to keep a leather bucket and hook by your house in case you had a fire, a chimney fire, so you could put it out,” said Halmich
The bucket brigades of decades past served the same purpose.
“If your neighbor had a fire, you grabbed your bucket and went to help your neighbor.”
Today, the property maintence codes may not be popular with property owners, but they save lives, effort and money, said Halmich.
“What people have to realize, even with a volunteer department, is that fire protection is expensive. The specialized equipment, the tools, so if you can minimize fire through behavior, which doesn’t cost anything, to me, you’re ahead,” he remarked.
“That’s why we have poster contests. We try to get the children early in school learning about prevention.
“Our forefathers were quick to identify opportunities and methods to improve the service delivery, and our approach is no different today,” said Halmich. “We want to identify opportunities and improvement in methods that can cost-effectively improve delivery of service.”
Looking to the Future
Looking ahead to the next 150 years of the Washington Fire Department, Halmich said there are two key areas of importance for the company to remain volunteer.
Recruitment is one. Bringing on younger members who have the same passion, dedication and commitment that firefighters of the last 160 years have had is crucial to remaining a volunteer department, said Halmich.
So is having the support of local businesses, which allow the firefighters who work for them to leave the job site to respond to calls throughout the day.
There is a game changer, though, coming to fire service, and while many people see it as controversial, Halmich welcomes it.
“I think the biggest cultural change that’s going to happen that will affect the fire service one way or another and its associated cost is the installation of residential sprinklers,” he said.
“No matter what . . . residential sprinklers — which is where most of fires occur — reduce the time on scene, reduce the loss, improve life safety. You can talk all you want to about the ancillary issues — cost and whatever, and argue that back and forth — but the fact of the matter is that we have an opportunity coming with the beginning of installation of residential sprinklers to completely change the culture of fire service and improve its cost.
“Maybe in this day and age a person doesn’t have time to volunteer, but he can contribute by putting residential sprinklers in his home.”
Halmich said it makes good financial sense — for the city as well as the homeowners.
“Look down the road at the cost of a career force . . . you put that device in, and it’s like having a firefighter in every room,” said Halmich. “And that firefighter doesn’t get vacation time. He doesn’t have to have fringe benefits. There’s no overtime for that firefighter.
“So when people discuss the cost, you have to look at the bigger picture, and I think the fire service has to realize what the proliferation of residential sprinklers would mean to the entire industry. There’s no question it would reduce further the fire load, fire deaths and losses in America. It’s that simple.”
Right now, Halmich said as an example, fire departments are looking at ways to increase their gallon per minute delivery on residential fires because of the types of combustibles and construction. To achieve that will cost money, he said.
“So you look at costs associated with doing that — the new nozzles, larger hose lines, whatever — and you compare that to residential sprinklers and the effect that has, and you can back off all of that,” said Halmich.
“When you get residential sprinkler systems in and get them perfected — because they’re not perfected yet — you change all of this. It’s a game changer.”