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Firefighters have a rich service heritage

Apr 23, 2013 - By Craig Haslam

The fire service has rich traditions that date back to the Roman Empire. For centuries, leaders and rulers understood the need for fire prevention and fire suppression.

In the early years of our nation, leaders began to recognize potential fire hazards and began trying to out fires as soon as possible. As early as 1648, New York and a few other cities had what was called the "rattle watch," where people volunteer to patrol the city streets. When a fire was spotted, they used large rattles to alert the citizens of the fire, and citizen "bucket brigades" were formed to douse the flames.

As time progressed, more people recognize the need to establish some sort of fire protection. In the beginning in Boston firefighting clubs were established, also known as mutual fire societies. These clubs brought together many neighborhoods to protect one another's property.

Although there were several of these organizations prior, Benjamin Franklin is credited with establishing the first volunteer fire department and is known as the first fire chief. Franklin recognize the need to provide fire protection for the entire community, not just a few, and the advantage of being organized with a purpose and not just pulled together to try to accomplish putting out a fire when it happened.

Franklin's Union Fire Company was organized and met monthly to discuss firefighting techniques and to be prepared when needed. Shortly after, many volunteer fire departments began organizing to be recognized. Throughout history, many of the prominent leaders of our nation were volunteer firefighters. George Washington was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Va. He even purchased a new fire engine for the town.

Fremont County also has a rich history of fire service. Like larger cities in the early days of the U.S., many of the towns in Fremont County recognized the need to establish fire department shortly after Wyoming received statehood in 1890.

Lander was the first in line in Fremont County, organizing its department in 1901, followed by Riverton in 1906, the year the town was founded. As towns and communities began to crop up around the county, the need for small town and community fire departments was clear.

Pavilion's fire department was established in 1940, Dubois in 1954, Hudson in 1953, Shoshoni in 1947, and Jeffrey city shortly after the town was established in 1931. A Fort Washakie department was established in 1981. And while the towns recognize the need for fire service, so did the rural communities. The Morton-Kinnear Volunteer Fire Department was established in 1954 and is recognized as the oldest rural fire department in Wyoming.

Other communities followed suit as they grew and the need arose to organize themselves as volunteer fire departments. The rural areas around the city of Lander formed a department known and Lander Rural, as did the communities of Missouri Valley, Midvale, Crowheart, Atlantic City and Lysite.

The heritage of the volunteer fire service in Fremont County has been passed down for generations in some of the departments, some as deep as three generations. And while we honor and cherish our history, sometimes that is what may be creating some of the problems we face today. The volunteer firefighter has always been a person who has given of himself or herself freely and without question. We answered the pager whenever summoned and went to the call for help the matter what our situation was at the time. Maybe we have created the world that we don't find ourselves in without even knowing it.

When you dial 911, you expect someone to show up and help you no matter what the problem may be. The fire service has become a catchall for many non-fire situation. And I blame it on the cat. For years the fire department was associated with rescuing Mrs. Smith's cat from the tree, when in reality that is not one of the duties that we normally perform.

But who else are you going to call? The police have guns, probably not a good combination with a cat in a tree. We, on the other hand, have ladders and all sorts of other neat tools to help with any situation. The fire service gets the call when no one else is really sure what to do, and we don't mind helping out and enjoy helping those in need, no matter the situation.

But I think therein lies part of our current problem. Because of our willing and ready attitudes, people take it for granted that the fire department will always be willing and ready to respond at a moments notice. They are right - we will continue to do so. But today, we are finding ourselves with fewer volunteers and more calls for service. We find that we are doing more with less in regard to volunteers. Today's society has higher demands on us, and with family, jobs, and today's social demands pulling us in all directions, we are seeing a continuing decline in volunteerism. We need more volunteers to step forward and help their communities, people to take some pride in ownership in those communities.

Many of you out there expect the fire department is going to show up when you need us, yet you don't quite understand or seem to forget that the fire service in Fremont County is made up of 100 percent volunteers. Our numbers seem to be declining, while our calls for service keep increasing.

Don't get me wrong. We love what we do and will continue doing it. We just need more help.

So why do we do it? Well, that is a story for another time. I hope to be able to explain more about the fire service and its volunteers in the future. So stay tuned, or feel free to contact us or our website for more information (www.fremontcountyfiredistrict.com). It doesn't matter where you live in Fremont County, we will point you in the right direction to get your questions answered and connected to the right fire department.

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Editor's note: Craig Haslam is chief of the Fremont County Fire District. He wrote this column in conjunction with National Volunteer Week.

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