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From bucket brigades to high-tech engines, Fresno’s firefighters span 140 years

Fresno Fire Department marks 140th anniversary

Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis discusses the significance of the department's 140th anniversary and describes how the department and firefighting have changed since 1877, when the all-volunteer Fresno Hook and Ladder Company was established with bu
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Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis discusses the significance of the department's 140th anniversary and describes how the department and firefighting have changed since 1877, when the all-volunteer Fresno Hook and Ladder Company was established with bu

Fire protection is something that most Fresno residents take for granted. Dial up 911, and within minutes you’ve got a fully stocked fire engine and a highly trained crew of firefighters working to snuff out the flames.

But in Fresno’s infancy in the 1870s, the lack of any coordinated firefighting effort meant that any sizable blaze had the potential to be a major disaster for the fledgling community. Only five years after Fresno was established in 1872 with the first tents and wooden shanties, the unfortunate combustibility of the town led, after fits and starts, to the establishment in February 1877 of the all-volunteer Fresno Hook and Ladder Company. That organization eventually evolved into today’s Fresno Fire Department as it celebrates its 140th anniversary.

“In those early years, Fresno was a city full of wood buildings” in which fire was a constant threat to property and life, said Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis, a 21-year veteran of the department. “We’ve come a long way from men with buckets, horse-drawn steamers and wooden ladders to 40,000-and-80,000-pound engines and trucks.”

But the men and women of the department still “have a servant’s heart and they want to serve this community and answer the call,” she said. “They put themselves in harm’s way often for the benefit of our city.”

The chief said the anniversary represents an opportunity to honor the firefighters whose duties have grown along with Fresno.

“Our firefighters have to be great at a lot of things, not just fighting fires,” Donis added. “It’s something that most people don’t realize. They just assume the fire department shows up (when they call), and we do. But there are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes to make that happen.”

The department has more than 370 employees, including about 330 sworn firefighters, engineers, captains and battalion chiefs.

Our firefighters have to be great at a lot of things, not just fighting fires.

Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis

Those crews respond not only to fires, but also calls for medical emergencies, traffic accidents, hazardous material spills, search-and-rescue operations, water rescues and airport emergencies. “It’s become an all-risk management department, not just a fire service department,” Donis said.

Mayor Lee Brand also voiced his appreciation for the firefighters. “I can never fully express my gratitude to the Fresno Fire Department,” he said. “Their 140-year record of service to our community has been exemplary.”

Over the course of the department’s history, seven firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty.

As the department looks back on its past, Donis is also looking forward to what she hopes the department can become – including the potential for restoring paramedic squads and growing the staff, facilities and equipment to deal with a greater volume of calls for service.

The early days

In the 1984 local history book, “Fresno County: The Pioneer Years,” authors Charles W. Clough and William Secrest Jr. said Fresno’s first serious efforts to establish a volunteer fire service came after a costly series of fires in 1876: one in January that destroyed a saloon, a drugstore and an office building; another in February that claimed a carpentry shop; and a July fire that took out the Blue Wing Dance Hall and two other businesses.

The Fresno Hook and Ladder Company was formed on Feb. 24, 1877, and Leopold Gundlefinger was named as the first foreman, or chief. A centennial history book about the department, “Second Alarm,” reports that the volunteers eventually raised $500 in silver from local businesses “to buy ladders, ropes, axes, buckets and a wagon.” The equipment was stored in a building on I Street (what is now Broadway) between Mariposa and Tulare streets – less than a block from the Fresno Fire Department’s current downtown headquarters at Tulare and H streets.

A July 1877 photo identifies Gundlefinger and 19 other volunteers with their new ladder wagon.

The fledgling department wasn’t always successful in its efforts. In mid-1882, “a great fire destroyed many valuable buildings including what was referred to as ‘that burlesque of a fire department, the hook and ladder wagon,’ ” according to the “Second Alarm” book.

Fresno was incorporated as a city in 1885, but the fire department remained an all-volunteer effort until 1902, when a paid department was established. The first chief appointed under the city charter in 1902 was James A. Ward, who had led the volunteers and served as fire marshal as early as 1897.

An exhibit in the Fresno County Historical Museum at the Fresno Fairgrounds shows some of the earliest memorabilia that the Fresno City Firefighters Association has in its collection. It includes two of Ward’s helmets – one from his days as assistant chief as well as his chief’s helmet. “These weren’t a very comfortable thing to be wearing for very long,” fire Capt. Jerry Smith said as he removed the old, white leather helmet from a display case. “It’s the real deal. It’s not heavy, but it’s not comfortable.”

Also on display are a couple of Ward’s old badges and his bugle – the brass horn through which fire commanders would shout orders to firefighters during the chaos of a blaze. Another of Ward’s horns is at the department headquarters, rescued years ago from a local yard sale, Donis said.

The centerpieces of the museum’s display are a 100-year-old Seagraves fire engine that’s been fully restored to running condition – “If we put gas in it, you could fire it up right now,” Smith said – and an 1877 hand pumper that was part of the original volunteer fire company’s equipment.

And don’t forget about a display of old baseball memorabilia – uniforms, a scorecard and trophies dating to 1917 – from the fire department’s annual games against the Fresno Police Department. Smith and Fresno City Firefighters union president Carlton Jones and vice president James Scroggins reveled in noting that the firefighters defeated the cops in 1917 and several other years, as evidenced by the trophies. “We beat ’em in soccer, too,” Scroggins said.

“And basketball,” Jones added. “We beat ’em in pretty much everything.”

A steady evolution

When the full-time department was formed in 1902, it included 12 regular firemen who were paid between $40 and $50 a month; another 20 “call men” were paid about $15 a month and responded to fires on an on-call basis. All of the firefighting equipment was horse-drawn, including three steamer engines, three chemical wagons (essentially big pressurized fire extinguishers on wheels) and one ladder wagon.

The fire department’s first motorized vehicle was a chemical truck that went into service in 1913. Built on a Kissel chassis by a blacksmith shop across from Fire Station 3, it included two 50-gallon chemical tanks taken from one of the department’s horse-drawn wagons. But it was destroyed by a fire the following year when two firefighters drove the truck into a burning hay barn to fight the fire. To save their jobs, the two firemen volunteered to rebuild the truck on their own time.

In 1917, the last of the department’s horse-drawn apparatus were motorized and the horse teams were retired. A photo of the last two teams commemorated the horses’ final day of work in August 1917, with the old Fresno County Courthouse in the background.

Donis described how both the nature of firefighters’ work and the equipment they use, as well as training, have changed over the years. When the volunteer company was formed in 1877, training was nearly nonexistent. “It was, ‘You’re a young, strapping man. Why don’t you come over and be a firefighter as a volunteer,’ ” she said. “Today there’s a lot of training that goes into it.”

In addition to fire academy training to prepare to become a firefighter, those joining the the department go through recruit training, or “drill school” when they are hired. But the training doesn’t stop once a firefighter has the job. The department’s goal is for each firefighter, engineer and captain to go through at least 240 hours of training each year. “That’s a very significant amount of time; it’s a very dedicated and measured investment,” Donis said. “We have our people training on a daily basis, and I’m sure years ago there wasn’t a focus on that, probably because the specialty was very narrow.”

“Today our specialty is quite broad, and it requires us to invest a lot of time in training and re-training,” she added. “We’ve come a long way from a volunteer department to one of the busiest metro fire departments in the country.”

Now, medical emergencies represent the bulk of the calls to which the fire department responds. Of nearly 44,000 calls last year, only 3,356 were for fires; more than 31,000 were for medical aid.

And the firefighting force itself is changing. It took 110 years before the first woman, Pat VanAman, joined the department in 1987. Today, there are six women at various ranks in the department. Donis, who joined the department 21 years ago, rose through the ranks and was appointed fire chief in Jan. 14, 2014, becoming the first woman to lead the department.

“As I said when I was appointed, I hope and I believe I was selected based on my merit and the work I’ve produced, not because I’m a woman,” Donis said.

She acknowledged that the historic nature of her appointment inevitably makes her a role model for other women and girls. “I think it’s important that we demonstrate strong professional women to our girls in the community,” Donis said. “But I hope I’m a role model for young men as well, that they can do this job as well; that you do the job right, do it well, take care of your people, do what’s best for the community, for the department and for the members.”

Marking the occasion

Donis and the firefighters union are equally enthusiastic about celebrating the department’s 140th anniversary.

“I think it’s pretty cool that we go back that far,” said Smith, the fire captain.

Donis wants the anniversary to be a reason to understand firefighters’ on- and off-duty contributions to the community. “They’re often putting themselves in harm’s way, driving Code 3 (lights and siren) hoping people don’t run the intersection; when they go to a medical call and people might have a communicable disease that they could take home to their family,” she said. “And they put themselves in harm’s way when they go and fight fire.”

Firefighters also organize events to take sick children and their families to the Big Fresno Fair each fall, participate in holiday events at Valley Children’s Hospital bringing the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus to visit the young patients, raise money for charities by selling Kids Day editions of The Bee and with their Fill The Boot drives, Donis said.

For the anniversary year, the department will hold its first Firefighters Ball since 2013 in October at The Grand 1401 in downtown Fresno. It’s also organizing a holiday greeting card art contest for local high school students; and is inviting the public to call their local fire station for station tours.

I think it’s pretty cool that we go back that far.

Fresno Fire Capt. Jerry Smith, about the department’s 140th anniversary

Donis said the anniversary also is an opportunity to celebrate the department’s continuing recovery from cuts it suffered following the 2008-10 recession. “I think it demonstrates the progress that we’re continuing to make,” she said. “We have come through some really difficult economic times. In 2009 or 2010, we parked six pieces of equipment and put 50-plus people into what we call a ‘relief pool’ to fill in on daily vacancies.  And it caused a stagnation where we didn’t grow for eight years.”

At any given time, the Fresno Fire Department has 77 firefighters on duty. “I would like to see at least 100 firefighters on duty each day in the core of the city,” Donis said. “Because of the call volume we are running – and we are projected to grow by at least 3,000 calls this year, we need the resources.”

Within the next couple of years, the department expects to move its maintenance division out of its 102-year-old shop next to Station 3 at Fresno and E streets – a building where the ceilings aren’t even high enough to allow mechanics to tilt up the fire engine cabs to work on the engines. “They have to do what we call this apparatus ‘rodeo’ – move the trucks out, move the engines in – and that takes about a half hour,” Donis said. “If they have to tilt the cab, they have to do it outside, whether it’s raining or it’s in 100-degree heat.”

The current plan is to take over space now used for garbage truck maintenance at the city’s transportation and maintenance yard a few blocks north on E Street. “That would double or triple the space that we have now,” Donis said.

Donis also hopes to propose restoring squads of firefighter/paramedics, who can respond to medical aid calls in a smaller utility vehicle rather than putting additional wear and tear on a 40,000-pound fire engine that was never intended for 1,500 calls a year. “They can run between districts and pick up maybe 20 to 30 calls a day and leave the engine parked, yet we’d still have more firefighters on duty each day,” Donis said. “That’s a better service-delivery model than massive engines and trucks all the time. We need those for the fires.”

And by the time the department observes its 150th anniversary in 2027, “I’d like to see this department at 120 firefighters each day, a regional training facility, a shop that’s functioning efficiently in a new location, a new station, and new apparatus and equipment,” Donis added. “I’d like to see the fire department continue to grow in a very healthy way serving the community.”

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