Preserving the Perishable: Traditions of the Fire Service Shared through Oral Story Telling

It was 1986, on a warm summer night and I found myself on the front porch of my grandfather’s home. I was then a new Fire Chief and my grandfather was a former Assistant Fire Chief. He was once again sharing those wild tales of firefighting in his time. Often he would tell me of that 1923 American LaFrance and how it performed on Christmas night 1949, at the Hyndman, Pennsylvania conflagration. Now thirty-five years, later I find myself filled with regret that I had not listened more intently to the details he shared, which unfortunately have now since escaped my own mind. As a child, we all remember playing a game of “Pass the Story.” We were all sitting in a circle and the teacher would start by whispering a story in one child’s ear and they would repeat to the next and so on and so on. It was always astonishing to hear how much that story changed by the time it got to the end. In some cases, it didn’t resemble in the least what the original story started as. Interestingly enough, whether kids or adults, the stories still end up skewed in that game. Typically, if we are not proactive in our efforts to protect and maintain our history, the end result is one of the aforementioned events. The story will be verbally passed down from generation to generation with bits and pieces forgotten here and there or maybe even things added to embellish it. The end result is history that is more assumptions than facts. As was the case in my scenario, the details were all there; I just failed to adequately protect the information from being lost. Either way, history was lost by my failure to act to preserve the perishable. I already know what you’re thinking. How am I supposed to preserve history? I am no writer or photographer extraordinaire. I am not a scrap booker? I am not even the company historian. If you are part of the fire service or fire protection family, then preserving the perishable history is your responsibility. I would venture a guess that the significant portion of those involved in fire service and fire protection already have a powerful tool for historical preservation. Today’s cell phones not only offer the ability to take amazingly high quality photographs, but they also afford us the opportunity to capture video. In the post-Covid era, we have become accustom to utilizing apps such as Zoom, which provides you the ability to conduct virtual “face to face” discussions but also affords you the capability of recording them. These tools allow us to capture history like never before by snapping pictures and recording video of real-time events. They also afford us the opportunity to do something else. They give us the opportunity to capture those old stories verbatim before they exist no more. The art of oral interviews is a fantastic way to capture the history but also some of the emotion associated with those memories as that individual recounts stories and responds to your questions. Multiple oral interviews from members of the same department can ultimately work to knit together a complete story of those days gone by. An article published on this site previously provided insight on the best ways to accomplish oral interviews and capture those stories from the senior members in your department. This can serve as an excellent starting point for the project. What a great gift to leave for the next generation. Rewind thirty-five years ago. My grandfather and I are on the front porch and he is telling his stories once again and there I am with my video rolling asking him questions about each one of those experiences. I would pick his mind about the smallest of details from the weather that night, to the tasks he performed, to the thoughts in his head. It would have just been me and my grandfather, a rookie leader and a former chief officer sharing stories to glean from his vast amount of experience. Today, I would have that video to explore as I have now, like many of us, developed a love of the history of the fire service and fire protection disciplines. Then it was just a conversation, but today what an incredible treasure that video would be in reliving that conversation on the front porch. I will leave you with this parting thought. What treasures are you leaving for the next generation of our fire service and protection family?
This blog article was a collaboration with Chief (Ret.) Dick DeVore (Executive Director, Chief Archivist) and Christopher Baker, GIFireE (PIO)

The National Fire Heritage Center
17701 Creamery Road, Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
P.O. Drawer 76, Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
(301) 876-3454