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Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009

Courage, Integrity and Honor

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Once early humans began controlling fire more than a million years ago, it was only a matter of time before a force was going to be needed to fight it. Harnessing the light and heat of fire means risking its ungodly devastation, a reality that spurred civilizations in Ancient Egypt to form organized firefighting brigades. As Milwaukee transformed from a tiny trading post on Lake Michigan to an industrial powerhouse during the mid-19th century, the need for an organized fire department grew with every new factory and home.

The Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD) first formed as a volunteer organization in 1837, evolving into a full-time service by 1875. According to Wayne Mutza, author of Milwaukee Fire Department, one of the city’s first fire apparatus was a horse-drawn wagon from which wooden ladders and buckets hung. Volunteers would rein the horses through the city’s dark streets, many of which were dirt, and signal with trumpets, a precursor to sirens. Until uniforms were introduced in the 1880s, volunteers often responded to fires wearing the same clothing they went to work in.

The evolution of the Milwaukee Fire Department is most obvious in the equipment it uses to battle blazes. In the beginning, fire horses were the department’s pride. They were needed to transport firefighters to the scene and to pull the department’s equipment, including hoses and heavy steamers that would pump water onto the fire by a double-acting onboard steam engine. Starting in the late-1880s, and for as long as horses were in service, some companies used sleighs to haul equipment through deep snow. Department veterinarians responded to all greater alarm fires, and the horses had their own hospital next to Engine 13’s quarters at 19th Street and North Avenue. In 1912, the MFD had 250 of the gentle giants on their roster.

To keep pace with the city’s expansion, chief James Foley employed one of his firemen, an ex-mason with an expertise in architecture named Sebastian Brand, to design new firehouses in 1885. Brand designed and oversaw the construction of more than 30 firehouses, most of which included stately features that reflected the importance Milwaukee placed on its Fire Department. These buildings often sported massive towers used for spotting fires and for hanging hose to dry.

A number of monumental fires galvanized the MFD to make improvements within the department and to establish tougher codes to make buildings safer. The Milwaukee fire that took the most lives occurred in 1883, when 70 people perished within the Newhall House Hotel. The Third Ward Fire of October 1892 engulfed 16 city blocks, destroying 443 buildings and 215 railroad cars. Three people, including a firefighter, were killed and 1,900 people, mostly Irish immigrants, were left homeless. According to Mutza, who served as a firefighter with the MFD, grain elevators along Milwaukee’s waterways accounted for many of the city’s large fires and more major fires have occurred along Water Street than any other in the city’s history.

The Milwaukee Fire Department currently employs approximately 1,000 firefighters and consists of 36 fire stations, 37 engines, 16 trucks, 12 paramedic units and one fireboat called The Trident. The department’s rich history and reputation for innovation continues to be made by the brave and honorable men and women who fill its ranks today.

414-286-8969/ 711 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53233/ www.milwaukee.gov