River Falls Fire Department: History
-Taken from the "River Falls Fire Department Centennial 1885-1985"
The initial department of 30 men came into being over a period of 6 months. On September 21, 1885, W. S. Armstrong, the first chief, signed on. By March 6, 1886, E. L. Dodge had become its 30th member. Each had paid the mandated $1.00 initiation fee, signed the by-laws and subjected himself to the rigors of firefighting, including a system of fines.
The duties of the chief (then called foreman) and his assistants were explicit and subject to a $1.00 fine when neglected. Pity the poor tiller man whose duties were to guard the equipment at all times of forfeit fifty cents. And if the chairman of the finance committee failed in giving timely reports he, too, paid a fifty cent fine.
Members were fined twenty-five cents to two dollars for such offenses as being absent from a fire (sickness or death excepted) or for quarreling, being intoxicated or giving counter orders. Three major offenses resulted in expulsion.
Such a system generally develops comradery and binds a department in common cause and effort. But apparently not so in the closing days of 1891. A petition dated December 11, 1891, signed by a group of taxpayers (notable among them a number of firemen) requested the purchase of a steam powered fire engine "providing our hand pump engine can be traded at fair value in part payment of a steamer".
What followed was a counter petition signed also by many firemen urging the Mayor and Council not to purchase a steamer as "we think the expense of maintaining a Steam Fire Engine will be too great a burden for the Taxpayers. It will discourage the erection of substantial Stone and Brick Buildings".
How harmony was reached is unknown but on Feb. 1, 1892, a resolution "was adopted at and spread upon the minutes of the fire department" showing "unanimous sentiment" in favor of purchasing the steam-operated pumper.
As a side note, the hand-pumper was sold to the Fire Department in Rock Elm, Wisconsin. Later, it was sold to the Ellsworth Fire Department. They have restored it and keep it as a memento of days long gone.
Early efforts of fire fighting were, at best, futile as fire brigades concentrated on saving adjoining structures. Keeping in mind that most structures were built of wood, fire fighting 100 years ago meant tearing down walls to create fire breaks and dousing wooden shingled roof tops with water. Their tools were axes, pike poles and many buckets used in the well-known bucket brigade.
The hand pumper was able to deliver a steady stream of water from the river or a well while 6 men, 3 to a side, alternately raised and lowered their pumping bars which operated the pump feeding a supply of water to the nozzle men. The steamer was merely a mechanical steam-operated substitute for manpower.
Horses were often used to pull the pumpers to the scene of a fire but no precise record exists showing River Falls may have kept horses. Records do show the location of perhaps the first fire "barn" as being located at the northwest corner of Main and Maple Streets. Across the street to the south was a livery stable and perhaps horses kept there were used in towing the fire equipment.
This first fire station was also the location of the fire bell which was installed in 1888. Apparently the bell was struck with a maul or hammer to summon the members of the department as no striker was purchased until 1917. Public law held the school master responsible for ringing the school bell for 20 minutes or until such time that the fire was under control.
In 1894, a water system was installed in the city providing 20,979 feet of water mains and 39 hydrants. The hydrant gave the firefighter easy access to water under pressure from which he could attach a hose and douse the fire. The hose cart, a hand-drawn, large two-wheeled device on which hard rubber hose was reeled, was utilized by the River Falls Fire Department. One remains in its possession today much like the one used nearly 100 years ago.
Nozzles used in the 1800's and later were of the "straight stream" variety. Mostly they were made of brass, varied in length and in the size of the nozzle opening: the smaller the opening the further water could be sprayed. Some had shut-off controls, others could only be shut down at the hydrant.
The early 1900's produced the first automobiles and, of course, the first fire trucks. Early fire trucks were used for transporting fire hose or were "chemical trucks". The so-called chemical truck carried a tank amounting to a large soda-acid extinguisher, which, when charged, would produce a pressurized fire extinguishing agent. Smaller hand-held soda-acid extinguishers were mounted on the running boards of the truck. The very rear of the hose truck was a platform on which firemen could stand en route to a fire. However, if too many boarded, the front wheels would come off the ground.
We're not certain when the first fire hall was built but in 1911 it was located next to City Hall in that portion that is now occupied by the public library (Note: this article was written in 1985, the library has since moved). In 1955, new quarters were built at its present site on Second Street where, ironically, a fire had destroyed the Langwear Clothing factory. An addition was completed in 1969 to accommodate the 85-foot snorkel truck. At the same time, a rear extension provided additional parking space and a lower level meeting room.
The first gas engine operated pumper was purchased in 1939. This white beauty was lettered with gold leaf and trimmed with an extensive amount of chrome. Its 600 gallon per minute pumping capacity was officially tested in 1982 at 602 gallons per minute - an outstanding feat for a 43-year-old pumper. It was, nonetheless, retired in 1984 as repair parts became too scarce to keep it operable.
Prior to 1950, self-contained breathing apparatus was being used very little. Some use was made of gas masks of the Army variety which allowed firemen the opportunity to enter a smoke filled environment. In 1951, the fire department purchased its first Scott Air Packs. These "Scotts" allowed firemen to breathe fresh air which was carried in a high pressure tank on their back while full face masks also protected their eyes. Today's air packs are much improved versions of the older models with lighter tanks holding 50% more air, mask mounted regulators and harnesses designed to accommodate the newer style of clothing.
At the same time air packs were coming into being, new variable nozzles were developed which produced either a straight stream or a fog spray. The fog was shown to be more effective in cooling down a fire due to the finer spray absorbing more heat and dissipating it as vapor.
Air packs and fog nozzles are but two examples of the ever changing means of efficiently fighting one of man's oldest enemies, fire. Proper ventilation techniques, salvage operations conducted to minimize damage, heat sensors and other means are being employed to save, as much as possible, life and property threatened by fire.
In the past ten years, fire science has come into being and only in recent times have basic experiments been conducted in order to determine the nature and conduct of fire. Technology has produced miracle fabrics and construction materials but very little is known about the nature of these products when subjected to fire. Often, the result is deadly to the firefighter or occupant of a burning building. Extensive testing is being conducted on such products, building codes are being revised or re-written and fire departments are studying their effects.
We believe River Falls is in the vanguard of providing the finest of fire service to the citizens of the River Falls area. We are committed to continue doing so. We welcome your support and thank you for the many kind acts of appreciation shown us over the past 100 years.