Firefighting history shows how squad has varied over the years
Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2000
On March 25, 1870, the Austin City Council bought for its firefighters seven ladders, seven pike poles, two grappling hooks, six axes, 50 buckets, one truck, one pump and box, a truck for the pump and 150 feet of hose for a total of $439.
Friday, August 25, 2000
On March 25, 1870, the Austin City Council bought for its firefighters seven ladders, seven pike poles, two grappling hooks, six axes, 50 buckets, one truck, one pump and box, a truck for the pump and 150 feet of hose for a total of $439.50.
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That was the first year of fire protection services – then called Austin Pioneer Hook, Ladder and Bucket Co. No. 1 – in the village of Austin. Chief H.J. Gilham had 124 volunteers to manage. They kept their buckets in their places of business, at their jobs or in their homes.
The constitution and bylaws of Co. No. 1 stated that no man under 19 or older than 45 years of age could belong and that "the company shall not consist of more than 200 members, but may by a two-thirds vote be limited to any less number."
At first, men pulled the tank wagons to the fires, filled with bucket brigades. Then horses replaced the men doing the pulling, and hose carts replaced the bucket brigades.
In 1891, Austin Hose Co. No. 1 replaced the first firefighting company downtown and eight years later Hose Co. No. 2 was organized on the East Side. The two later became one.
For more than 50 years after its inception, the fire squad was all-volunteer. Although the city got its first five professional full-time firefighters in 1923, the volunteers continued to be used to fight large fires until 1934. By that time, the number of full-time firefighters numbered 34.
"When the first full-time firefighters started, they would work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for their $105-a-month salary," Jiles Baldus wrote in his Mower County Fire Department History. "About every two weeks they would get 12 hours off, in addition to the three hours allowed to go home for their meals each day."
By the time Baldus wrote the history for the department’s centennial in 1970, the department was staffed by three shifts of 11 firefighters, with a captain and a lieutenant in charge of each shift. Fire calls would see the pumper truck driver leading the way with men riding on the back ready to pull out the hose if needed. A driver and another firefighter also rode the ladder truck, while one man stayed at the station keeping radio contact with the trucks and calling other members on off-duty to come to the station to standby for either a simultaneous fire or to give assistance at the other fire.
The Austin Fire Department has changed a lot, and the changes continue with each new city council and each new wave of technology. Better communication methods means firefighters can be reached wherever they are in the area. Better prevention and detection equipment means less serious fires. Better training and equipment makes the job of the firefighter less dangerous and the new trucks only need four firefighters to leave the station for a structure fire.
Today, the department has 10 full-time firefighters plus the fire chief and permission from the council to hire up to 34 part-time firefighters, who are paid on-call. Austin has had a combination (full-time and part-time) department since the early 1990s.
Now each member of the department carries a pager, which is set up like an open radio. The small black box tells each firefighter where the fire is, even though most will come to the station first and from there to the fire.
What would those first firefighters, who came running with their buckets at the sound of the church bells, have thought?