Preserving the Perishable: What is Considered Historically Significant?
During a recent zoom meeting, the participants, including myself, shared stories of historically significant items being discarded by fire departments. Often, it's personnel unfamiliar with the fire service's history and in a well-meaning attempt to do their part in cleaning up the station, they begin to discard things into the dumpster. They may not realize the historical significance that an item may have in the department's history. In some instances, it's the fire service veteran or the historian that goes "dumpster diving" to save the day and preserve pieces of history for future generations—in other sad cases, realizing an item came too late to protect it from its discarded fate.
In one specific example that I am aware of, a well-intentioned new officer decided to show station pride by cleaning out the department's storage area. Not recognizing photographs, names, or even old documents, historically significant items were mistakenly discarded and lost forever. When the young officer was questioned about his actions, his response was, "if they were so important, why were they just tossed in boxes?" That young officer raised a valid point. Had we the fire service failed in our mission of preserving the perishables? More importantly, had we, the fire service done a better job at educating our new personnel on the importance of our history and traditions, tragedies like this may have been avoided.
Similar examples of that same story are replicating itself in fire stations all across America. It's the old backroom or closet that has become a collection of boxes and papers for several years. Space has reached a critical point and well-meaning firefighters take action. In cleaning things up at the fire station, we typically will come across items that I can put into three categories, historically significant, collectible, and "stuff." To be able to classify and discard appropriately, we need to be mindful of a straightforward rule. If you don't know what it is, then don't throw it out!To figure out precisely what you may have, you may have to do some investigative work or call in some help, but it just very well may save the day in the long run.
What exactly do we mean by "historically significant?" The online resource Quora defines historically significant as anything that had a bearing on the situation when it took place. In layman's terms, in telling your department history, this particular photograph, helmet, or any other fire service item, had a significant impact on your department if even just for a moment. In the absence of that item, your history may have been somewhat different. The New Yorker helmet from 10 years ago maybe a collectible, while the first Fire Chief's white helmet is historically significant. The photograph of a fireman's parade from 20 years ago may fall into the category of stuff. Still, the photo of laying that first block to build the fire station is historically significant. The old run sheet for a common grass fire 20 years ago may just be considered stuff. Still, the run sheet for a significant fire that reshaped your community is probably historically significant.
I hope you see my point. We have to understand our history to be able to understand what is historically significant. In the absence of that historical knowledge, we can't adequately gauge the historical value. When well-meaning personnel, lacking historical knowledge, begin to determine what is significant, accidents occur.
Our jobs as fire historians is to preserve the history of our proud service for future generations, but how do we accomplish this? The answer to that question is straightforward. We need to develop a proactive strategy in our departments by seeking out the history and taking steps to preserve it. This means identifying historically significant items and giving them a place to be held safely and preserved adequately. This also includes a "line of succession" of historical knowledge of the department history, passing it down from generation to generation. It also includes teachable moments to share with younger firefighters the forward progression of the fire service.
Preserving the history of the fire service is a task that is every firefighter's responsibility. It is that history that we learn from in hopes of not repeating past mistakes. We should never take lightly the efforts and accomplishments of those who came before us in our profession, for they have laid the foundation and built the fire service of today.
Pictured: The second oldest document in the National Fire Heritage Center archives is a certificate of appointment to firefighter for Henry Fredricks in the town of Paterson, New Jersey (1832). Accession Number [2014.063.062]