Minnesota fire department marks 125 years

October 1, 2018

EMT Linda Palcich-Wald holds an antique call box in front of one of the Virginia Fire Departments modern ambulances Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2018. Palcich-Wald is the newest staff member at the department and represents a continuation of service in the departments 125 year history. (Mark Sauer/The Mesabi Daily News via AP)

VIRGINIA, Minn. (AP) — The hay lofts for the horses that pulled the steam pumper fire engines can still be seen in the ceiling of the Virginia firehouse.

The bricks in the original hose tower still bear the inscriptions of firefighters’ names dating back to the early-1900s.

The building has been in existence for 111 years, after all, making it “one of the older firehouses in Minnesota,” Virginia Fire Marshal Chris Clark told the Mesabi Daily News .

The department, however, has been around even longer.

This year marks the Virginia Fire Department’s 125th anniversary.

On March 10, 1893 — four months after Virginia was voted to village status — “nearly all the able-bodied men met to form the community’s first firefighting company,” according to a written history of the department.

During the past 125 years, two major fires “all but leveled the city.” The first, caused by a brush fire, occurred in June 1893. Within an hour, flames swept thought town leaving only 34 structures standing.

The second happened in June of 1900, when fire razed the main street district, according to the Centennial History book of the VFD. This time the city “was rebuilt with brick and stone.”

The current fire hall, updated and expanded though the years, was constructed in 1907, at a cost of almost $13,800. A new alarm system was installed, which included 28 alarm boxes, an 8-inch gong, and a 36-inch fire bell. The following year, the company purchased a new team of horses.

By 1920, the last horse was sold when the department converted its horse-drawn steamers to motor power.

And, of course, it has evolved since then. In 1947, Virginia Fire assumed the ambulance service. In 1988, 12 members were trained to be paramedics, which allowed the Ambulance to become licensed as an Advanced Life Support Service.

In 1928, Virginia Fire responded to 96 alarms, according to historical documents.

In 2017, VFD responded to a total of 4,257 calls.

This year, from Sept. 3 to 9, alone, the department was called for service 94 times, including 22 fire and 72 medical calls.

Clark said when he started with the department in 2002, the yearly total was closer to 1,200 calls.

Just over the last several years, the number of medical transports has skyrocketed, and “25 percent of calls are outside city limits,” said Fire Chief Allen Lewis.

That has initiated the need for more personnel.

The department currently has 33 members, including single-role EMTs and firefighter/paramedics. And it’s still growing, Lewis said. When he took over as chief three and half years ago, there were just 19 members.

With a larger department — and much heftier vehicles than when the hall was originally built — VFD is quickly continuing to outgrow its current location.

Members have been doing what they can to update the aging structure until funding and plans are worked out for new public safety building in Virginia, Lewis said.

Additional “sleep rooms” were recently added in what space is available, and a closet was converted into a women’s shower, Clark said, offering a tour of the fire hall.

The tall stairway has been painted red and yellow and the railing refurbished thanks to the efforts of staff.

And the department even has a new mascot — “Puddles” — which Captain Adam Metsa painted in one day, converting the training hydrant outside the station into a Dalmatian pup. Getting a real pooch one day is a possibility, noted the chief. But for now, the public has enjoyed taking photos with Puddles.

The firehouse includes a lounge, where monthly regional fire trainings are held, and a workout area. Firefighters suffer from “a higher rate of cancer,” as well as mental health issues, Clark said. A federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant last year was used to purchase new workout equipment and fund injury prevention and wellness programs.

The equipment is also used for training, Clark noted. For instance, firefighters will often tread the stair climber “with an air pack on.”

The department’s fleet includes six ambulances; rescue vehicles including a boat, sled and four-wheeler; a four-wheel drive truck that can be outfitted with a snowplow; a 105-foot latter truck that pumps 1,500 gallons of water per minute; and a 2012 pumper rescue engine with a 750-gallon tank that pumps 2,000 gallons per minute.

Some of the department’s vehicles are housed off-site, Clark said.

The VFD focuses heavily on education and community service, Clark said.

When the department learned that 40 percent of house fires were cooking-related, it launched a campaign “to reduce cooking fires by 20 percent by 2020.”

Last year, “a cooking demo trailer” was brought to Virginia to teach the public about kitchen fire safety. Magnets saying “don’t invite us to dinner” and containing tips such as keeping a fire extinguisher nearby and not storing items in the oven or on the stove top were made. Hot pads reading “watch what you heat” were also distributed.

“Distracted cooking,” including individuals under the influence of alcohol and drugs, has contributed to the problem, Clark explained.

Unfortunately, fires “burn hotter and faster” than ever due to “more synthetic items” in homes, Clark said. The smoke is also more toxic.

“It’s more important than ever to shut doors when going to bed and to not sleep with phones plugged into chargers” where they can overheat and combust when tucked under pillows or in bedding.

Having a fire escape plan and working smoke detectors is also crucial.

Clark said the VFD has embraced the Fire Explorers program, which offers hands-on career exploration to ages 14 to 21. A number of participants have gone on to become members of the department and other local agencies.

VFD also educates 1,300 kids each year, Clark said.

During Fire Prevention Week Oct. 8 to 12, personnel will teach age-appropriated fire safety in local schools and offer station tours to students.

The 125-year department prides itself in “building working relationships with the community,” Clark added. It participates in such fundraisers as Fill the Boot, which collects for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Stuff the Ambulance to assist children in need during the holidays.

“I’m very proud of this department,” Lewis said. Members consistently “do a good thing” without seeking recognition or approval. “They just do it.”

“We have a long and proud tradition” — 125 years strong, Clark said.

And, Lewis added, “we invite everyone to come and celebrate” that significant milestone.


Information from: Mesabi Daily News, http://www.virginiamn.com

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