Department History

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Department History

The following is a history of the Columbia Heights Fire Department’s first fifty years (1907-1957) as written by then Assistant Fire Chief Omar Schwartz followed by the third quarter century written by Firefighter Denise DeMars for the departments 75th Anniversary and then the Last Quarter Century and beyond, written by Captain Dan O’Brien for the 100 Anniversary of the department in 2007. 

We have included his narrative exactly as Chief Schwartz wrote it. We feel that it is an accurate and entertaining look back at the first half-century of the Columbia Heights Fire Department. It was also our feeling that the delightful writing style of the period should not be lost. 

The First Fifty Years (1907-1957)
In the spring of 1907 a group of men were called together for the purpose of organizing a local fire department, as at that time firefighting was dependent on the Minneapolis department. 

The department was organized, by-laws adopted and on May 28, 1907, they received their charter. The personnel of the department consisted of 16 men including the Chief who was Phil Stack of Mill St., Alex Reynick of 41st and 5th St. was the first Secretary. The first piece of equipment was a 2-wheel hose cart pulled to a fire by hand or behind a vehicle, as there were quite a few teams to be found in the Heights at that time. 

It generally, was a race to the fire barn when the bell rang as the fireman received a fee of a couple dollars for this service. The alarm to alert the firemen was a bell on top of the building which was located at 40th and 7th St., the present location of the water meter department. As there was a lot of pastureland, grass fires were the big problem. 

The historic fire here was a grass fire in 1911 when the funeral coach that hauled the body of Lincoln from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, was destroyed in 1911. This was owned by Tom Lowry, owner of the Minneapolis Street Railway Co., who had purchased it for exhibition and had it located at 37th and Quincy St. Because there weren’t many buildings, fires were mostly chimney and roof fires. 

As the Heights was beginning to grow, a model T Ford truck was purchased in 1913. This had two soda and acid chemical tanks and a compartment for 2 ½ inch hose with some of the necessary tools. This was taken care of with pride including a few unscheduled fishing trips to Lake Johanna and Ham Lake. Any fire at that time was a good place to get a bath, as those were the days of drowning out a fire which ended with the water damage exceeding the actual fire loss about 10 to 1. 

The Minneapolis Department answered quite a few calls here at that time. The last fire called answered here by the Minneapolis old horse drawn steamer was in 1917 at the Electric Steel Foundry, 38th and 5th St. Firemen were hard to keep at that time because people were on the move and the turmoil of war. Men were on the department only a few years until new jobs beckoned them on. Early in 1919 the fire station with all equipment and records, were destroyed by fire. When the Minneapolis fire truck from 25th and Central got here through the mud on 40th Ave., the possessions of the Columbia Heights Fire Department were only history. The City Office at the time was in the fire hall so they also lost many of their records. The fire was started by a caretaker who had a hot fire going in a stove which was surrounded by several rolls of tar paper. As he had been playing a game of ga-sund-beit with a flask of white mule, he barely saved his own hide. Makeshift arrangements were used until a new station was built and a new truck was delivered. In 1920 a Nash quad four-wheel drive was put into service. It had a 400 gallons per minute rotary pump, 2 100 gallon chemical tanks and space for 1200 feet of hose; ladders and tools were also included. At this time rubber coats were added to the firemen’s equipment. 

The Police Department had a small room in one corner of the fire barn at this time. Those were the days of moon-shiner. The boys of the law were out doing their duty, and when a fire call was received at that time you had to battle through a mass of copper coils, boilers, and ten gallon jigs to get on the fire truck. The police didn’t have to investigate too far for some of the evidence; there generally were a dozen clues or more around. Court was held in the fire station almost every Saturday. In 1921 the bell which is still on top of the old fire station was replaced with a three-horse power siren. The bell was used for the 9:30 p.m. curfew and calling the firemen together for meetings, and for fires when the siren was frozen up or out of order. 

Grass and roof fires seemed to be the most troublesome in this era as wood shingle was still plentiful. At about the time one of the most spectacular fires up to this time destroyed the Schock Parlor Frame furniture at 38th and University. The fire department had to stay on the job three days wetting down the debris and sawdust. As many families came here to establish a permanent home and raise their families, a younger type group of men made their appearance as firemen. In 1929 a Wills all-purpose truck was put into service. This carried 100 gallons of water, hose and miscellaneous equipment. 

The firemen were attending fire schools and short courses whenever possible. Fire prevention was a must and much work was done with the schools. In 1935 the first fire code was adopted and enforced. At this time the department was aggressive and known throughout the state as a model department by the leading officials in the fire service. Fire losses were held down to a minimum. Through the efficiency of the department, Columbia Heights was given a rating in insurance rates of class 7. 

In 1937 a new siren was purchased replacing the old sterling. This siren is still in service calling out volunteers. In 1940 another truck was added; this was a 750 gallons a minute International truck. At this time all-purpose gas masks were also purchased. The city offices and police department had long since moved out of the fire station but because room was at a premium it was decided to build a new fire station. This is the present station built by P.W.A. labor at a cost of $8,700. This was finished in the summer of 1942 and taken over by the department in the same year. At this time the first regular fireman was put on. This appointment went to Omar Schwartz who at the time was also chief. As the war clouds were overhead, auxiliary firemen were trained and many extra duties fell on the shoulders of the firemen. In February 1944 the second regular fireman was put on. This appointment went to Wm. Ostmoe. Late in 1944 the first Fire Civil Service Commission was appointed and the fire department put under the Civil Service the same as the local police department. 

The first commission was composed of Ralph Lawrence, John Hogan, and Ellsworth Hollepeter. Due to the war new problems and methods of extinguishing fire were confronted. The firemen had to have knowledge of science and first aid work as new chemicals were used in extinguishing fire. Schools were held throughout the state, competitive evolutions were held among the fire departments, with the local fire department always considered as the one to eliminate. Several regional championships were won and in 1947 the Heights Department los the state championship by three seconds. The fire department was always on the N.W. fire school program as unit in charge of program or speeches on firefighting subjects. 

In 1946 the third man was put on. This appointment went to pat Kennedy. At this time a new and up to date fire code was adopted, fire inspections of all commercial and business places were made at least twice a year. Fire prevention work was heavily stressed. Fires were about average for a city of the 4th class with losses on the low side. Because the Heights was growing, a new fire truck was purchased and delivered in the fall of 1951, this being the 1,000 gallon per minute Mack Pumper. The Wills truck was turned over for Civil Defense purposes. This truck was equipped with several thousand dollars’ worth of rescue equipment furnished by the government. Calls for helping people in distress and first aid were on the increase, so the firemen were instructed on the modern methods of first aid by the Red Cross by four instructors in the personnel of the department. A used carry-all truck was purchased and converted into a first aid truck, carrying respirators, oxygen, and emergency equipment. At the present time the latest fire code has been adopted, a fire prevention bureau established, modern methods of extinguishing fires and appliances for the use of foam carbon dioxide have been adopted and other chemicals are part of today’s equipment. 

The most historic fire that occurred in the early days, was the burning of the Lincoln Funeral Coach in 1911. Fires in building were not uncommon, but grass and brush fires were the main concern of the firemen in the early days. The most humiliating fire was in 1919 when the station equipment and all was destroyed, where the present water department is on 40thand 7th Street. The monetary loss and spectacular fire was the old Schock Parlor Frame factory located at that time at 38th and University. The Nash truck was kept there for three days wetting down the debris. The most tragic fires were the home fires that took the lives of seven children and two adults. Over the span of years those are always the ones you never forget. 

Humorous incidents in the old volunteer days were quite plentiful, such as throwing an expensive mirror out the second floor window and then carrying the bed chamber, a land mark in every happy home, down the fire ladder. Smashing a door, then discovering it was not locked in the first place. Late nights or early in the morning fires were never a place for dress parades. It wasn’t what the firemen took time to put on but what he didn’t put on. One incident that would head the list of forget-me-nots, was a fire occurring early in the morning. After the fire was under control this man reached in his pocket for his box of snuff, but found that his trousers were still at home where he had left them. 

Danger always had its place at all fires and through the years numerous accidents have taken their toll and sidelined some of the men for a while. But we can thankfully say that none has ever been fatally hurt. 

Fire prevention and control will advance with the times, fire trucks will be pushed aside as was the old hand pump and hose cart. Airplanes will have their place. Chemicals instead of water will be used. This is the atom age. A salute to the firemen of the past. 

Firemen of today, let us remember that though absent in body and in mind, these firemen of yesterday live on, in the rich spirit that they have engendered into your profession. Their courage, their devotion to service to their fellowman, their comradeship, their generosity, their vision and their fighting spirit must not die. You as firemen of today must carry these virtues into the future. 

In memory of them, let us as firemen of today say to our comrades who are gone, you’ve helped to find and pave the way. Your brave spirit is fighting on, your valor, vision and foresight, your sense of comradeship of crew are in the battle we fight. The noble service we pursue. 

The 3rd Quarter Century (1957-1982) 

hist23The third quarter century of the Columbia Heights Fire Department’s history saw growth of the department in the number of members, in the range of responsibilities, and in its sophistication of its equipment and tactics. Some things, however, never change in the fire service, things such as the warmth of a bed left to answer a call for help, the long hours spent battling the winter’s cold and the flame’s heat, and the camaraderie that exists among all fire fighters. 

The Department has answered an increasing number of calls throughout the years. Calls for the year 1981 numbered 1,014. This constitutes a new record for service to the community. In the early 1950s the Department answered occasional calls for first aid assistance. Emergency medical care has become more and more important function of the department. Emergency medical assistance calls now account for approximately two-thirds of the Department’s annual runs. In addition to firefighting and medical assistance, the Department operates active fire prevention and inspection programs and conducts fire training and education programs within the community. While the Department’s Fiftieth anniversary booklet’s fanciful predictions of the replacement of fire trucks with airplanes and of water with chemicals may not have come to pass, many changes and improvements have been accomplished during this quarter century just completed. 

The 4th Quarter Century and beyond 
The faces of the fire service and emergency services have changed much over the past quarter century and the fire department is responsible for an ever-expanding range of responsibilities. The fire department call volume in 2007 was 2334 calls. Medical calls now account for approximately almost 80% of all calls and the fire department, thanks to our forefathers recognizing the need for emergency medical services, has been and continues to be proactive when it comes to the medical needs of our citizens. The Department, because it holds a BLS ambulance license has been able throughout the years to bring to the public many advanced life saving diagnostic tools, medicines and procedures not found in most departments throughout the state. Defibrillators, pulse oximeters, and glucometers are some of the diagnostic tools we can use to help treat a patient. The Department also carries a wide range of medicines such as Epinephrine for allergic reactions, Albuterol for Asthmatics, and Nitroglycerin and Aspirin for heart attacks. 

Public education and fire inspections continue to play an important role for our department and with the addition of the Housing Maintenance Code in the early 1980s the fire department stays busy inspecting and licensing rental properties in the city and to ensure that our neighborhoods look good and keep their value. Today, there are so many specialized fields in the fire service that it is hard to keep all members trained to do every job. Specialized teams such as Hazardous Materials Response, Fire Investigation, and Specialized Rescue have sprung up in the County over the years and each team contains members from multiple departments. Post 9-1-1, the fire service has seen a large increase in responsibility for response to potential terrorist attacks involving biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear agents and the fire service as a whole races to train and equip for this threat and others yet unforeseen. Interoperability and unified commands are now becoming the norm as the fire service and other agencies such as police and EMS talk and cooperate with each other on unprecedented levels and migrate to a common radio and command system nationwide. 

Fire suppression technology advances slowly and while we still put fires out with water, the water is now being mixed on most fires with a foam concentrate which puts the fire out faster and better than water alone and generally does less damage due to less water being used. The faces may have changed over the years, but the personalities stay the same and the level of professionalism increases as the Columbia Heights Fire Department surges into the next century and continues to be a progressive leader in life safety, education and property conservation.