Preserving the Perishable: The Importance of Documenting History

I remember attending a fire conference and the topic was Safety and Apparatus Response. A side discussion started regarding beating a first due company to their own call. The engineer joked that he carried business cards and said he would place them on the first due apparatus’s front seat with the words “It’s your first due and we beat you.” Now, I will admit I paraphrased the language somewhat. Still, it highlights something that has driven the fire service for years, namely, the culture that has always been a part of the fire service: camaraderie and competition between departments. An excellent historical example about “being first” is from the early days of New York City fire companies fighting other fire companies to be first at a plug. From the first steamer engine to the first motorized apparatus, from the first female firefighter to the first female officer in your department, every department has its important moments in history. Capturing those significant “first” moments is one way of documenting your department’s history. Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue in Florida recently made history on September 18, 2020, with the first all-female Engine Company in its 57-year history. “We’re breaking barriers,” said rescue lieutenant Krystyna Krakowski, who led the heroines of the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue. “It’s the first time we had in our department a female as a captain, a driver, a firefighter, rescue lieutenant and a medic.” (Jossie Carbonare, WYFF) Other examples include New York City’s first female firefighter Molly Williams along with the first female Fire Chief in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Tiffany Green. The collection of firsts from these departments tells the story of the American fire service. As of 2018, there were 270 female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department; the first female firefighters Shelia Hunter and Frances Focha, started in 1987. From the first volunteer firefighter in the first volunteer company to the first paid firefighter in the first paid company, these first firefighters can be considered historical people and moments in time. These are the types of historical moments in the fire service that we, as the National archive, and you, as your department historian, must work to save for future generations. We talk about camaraderie and competition, but we want to work together with you to help capture our shared history. That is, we need your help to “preserve the perishable.” This blog article is a call to action for every fire department in the United States to document and share the importance of your department’s history. The National Fire Heritage Center (NFHC) has developed a template of questions for you to download and to start documenting your department’s history. Do you have a unique historical story? Please share your information with us as we document and preserve America’s fire service perishable history. Chief Ronny J. Coleman, immediate past president, authored a very similar blog article in the 2009 NFHC Volume 1, Number 5 Newsletter on the importance of documenting the fabulous firsts in our history. This blog article attempts to obtain answers to Chief Coleman’s questions a decade ago in his efforts to preserve the perishable history of the American fire service.
This blog article was a collaboration with Christopher Baker, GIFireE (Director/PIO), Dick DeVore (Chief Archivist), Jamie O’Keefe (Contributor)

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