For 125 years, the Fort Scott Fire Department has served the city in emergency situations, and this Saturday will celebrate those years by inviting the community to an event at the fire station from noon to 3 p.m.
“Everybody’s pretty excited about it,” Fire Chief Paul Ballou said of the event and the anniversary it is recognizing, pointing out that it was the firefighters who planned the event after bringing the anniversary to his attention earlier this year. “I think it’s going to be good. I think people will be really excited to probably see the old stuff, to see where we started in that day.”
The event will give visitors an opportunity to commemorate the anniversary and view old equipment used by the fire department over the last 125 years, including old fire engines and other equipment used and worn by the firefighters. Old ledgers will also be on hand to provide detailed information on the department stretching back to the 1800s, though maybe not the very beginning.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Ballou said, saying he has been a part of the department for the past 26 years, serving as chief since November of 2008, after a friend got him interested in becoming a firefighter.
In his time with the department, Ballou said he has witnessed several changes come to the department, such as moving out of the downtown station and into their current location in 1993, adding fire station two in 2009, as well as a variety of improvements and changes made to the technology and equipment they use, such as thermal imaging cameras and better breathing apparatus.
Another change in the 1990s included the types of calls the department responds to. Ballou said initially a fire department’s primary job was to control fires. But in the last few decades, they began responding to vehicle accidents and rescue calls with local Emergency Medical Service teams as well, increasing their call volumes.
Currently, the department averages about 100 calls a month, responding to almost 1,400 in 2015, which was a busy year. Ballou said their record came during a major storm when they answered about 100 tones in just one day.
Ballou said higher numbers of calls can bring mixed feelings for the firefighters, who joined the department in order to have that opportunity to help the community and appreciate having their long shifts kept busy by calls. But at the same time, Ballou said they recognize that when they have a busy day, others are having a bad day.
Despite the changes he himself has witnessed, Ballou said he cannot imagine other changes that occurred over the past 125 years for the Fort Scott Fire Department, which started off using a horse-drawn apparatus before transitioning to gas engines. Old ledgers even show when the department realized feeding and keeping the horses annually was more expensive than running the newer engines.
The department also transitioned from using just two shifts of firefighters to the current three, 24-hour shifts, giving the staff more time off and flexibility with sick days, training and holidays. A six-person reserve program also now provides extra manpower as well as a deputy chief position which was added just in the past couple years.
“It’s changed a lot,” Ballou said of the department.
But despite those changes, Ballou says some of the traditions remain the same, such as the firefighters’ eagerness to serve their community in times of emergency and the nature of the firefighter community that supports each other’s families while their loved ones are serving in sometimes dangerous situations.
A tradition the department has held to for possibly as long as 75 years includes honoring past firefighters who have died by placing grave markers and firefighters’ flags at their gravestones each Memorial Day. Ballou said in the history of the department, they believe they have three confirmed, line-of-duty deaths, including one firefighter who was killed on his very first shift as a firefighter while others died later of smoke inhalation.
“We lose them close to home sometimes,” Ballou said, mentioning other firefighters who died more recently in neighboring cities and departments, while more than 30 have already died in the line of duty in the nation this year.
Mutual aid plays a key role for the majority of fire departments, including Fort Scott, as they respond to some calls in the county while those rural departments or other city departments help Fort Scott in larger emergencies. Ballou said their department relies on those departments just as they depend on Fort Scott, recalling emergencies such as the downtown fire in 2005 that took more than 30 hours, about 25 different departments and 100 firefighters just to get it under control.
Ballou said the city itself has also been very supportive of the local fire department and its staff over the years.
“I think it says something for the city and the community to have that particular time in history come up,” Ballou said of the department’s longevity and upcoming anniversary. “We hope we’ve done the city proud over the years.”
Later this month, Ballou said they hope to hold a second event that may be just for current and past firefighters, some Ballou said served as firefighters for years and even decades.