From the August, 2008
The ears and eyes still take notice when the sirens sound. It may be that repressed “I want to be a firefighter” fantasy as a child (didn’t we all?). It could be the natural curiosity of “what’s going on?” Or it just may be what the sirens are trying to tell us… “PULL OVER TO THE RIGHT!”
That is the only time most of us take notice. We pass by our downtown fire stations most often with little notice. How much do we really know about downtown’s fire stations?
First, not everything that is red with wheels and sirens is a fire truck. EVERY firefighter knows the sentence “trucks carry ladders, pumpers (also called engines) carry hose.” Now that you know that little bit of fire lore, it’s time for a short history lesson.
Early fire fighting in Memphis was done with good neighbors and a lot of buckets. Memphis’ first fire engine predated the fire department when a local alderman purchased one from Cincinnati. Soon the city had several volunteer fire companies which became one paid Memphis Fire Department in 1866.
Memphis of the 1800’s was built with a lot of wood. Plus with open flames needed for light, heat and cooking, the Memphis Fire Department stayed busy. One notable fire in 1892 destroyed 3 blocks of downtown.
The 20th Century brought changes both in size, technology and personnel. Horses were retired in 1910. Intergration began in 1955 at station 8, which was then at Mississippi and Crump. When Memphis’ first black fire fighters reported for duty.
July 1, 1966 was the inaugural day for Memphis Fire ambulances. It was also the inaugural day for the son of David and Patsy Lisenby who had their son delivered by Memphis Fire Ambulance firefighters (paramedics were not licensed in the state until 1973) in the back of the family car at 122 South 3rd. EMS also brought new faces to the fire stations in 1983 when women paramedics joined the ranks.
The MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR in November, 1982 in an attempt at humor, had a photo of a female fire recruit carrying a fire hose over her shoulder. “Margo Wilkins pulls on a different kind of hose,” the caption read. When Julia Harris and Donna Hulbert reported for duty at the station at Jackson and Breedlove in April, 1987, the fire “men” of Memphis became the fire “fighters” of Memphis. In February, 1988 came 911 services. Payphones and then cell phones began showing up everywhere so starting in the early 1980’s the fire box alarms on poles throughout the city began disappearing. You still see red and white paint where they were located.
Today 55 stations cover the Memphis City limits fighting fires, rescuing people and helping the sick. They eat together, relax together and work together and in a few cases have died together. Nine Memphis fire fighters have died in the line of duty since 1987 and in the cruelest of ironies; all of those were during responses to arson fires.
For over 100 years, the corner of Union and Front has been headquarters. though the present building has been there since 1967. Engine 5 also sits waiting for the next alarm. Today ”A” shift is cooking not only for the station but for the administrators upstairs. Catfish and spaghetti were on the lunch menu and they do take their food seriously. I ask if they ever get TV dinners and all I get is a strange look, the kind of look I would get if I asked a Mexican family if they want to have Thanksgiving at Taco Bell.
“When we are not working, training or doing house work we are humoring each other,” said Engine 5’s driver Edward Stanley. Inside jokes go back and forth after lunch meaningless to this visitor but enough crack each other up. Not much is happening this weekday morning despite being in the middle of downtown. But then a dot matrix printer comes to life signaling our first call followed by the phrase “Companies stand by,” and a long tone loud enough to make anyone wake.
Police report smoke coming from the trolley tracks on Madison and Main. Despite a steady stream of water, the steam is still pouring out looking like something from Yellowstone National Park. MATA arrives and informs us there is no fire danger, just a heater designed to keep ice off the tracks doing its job. OK. Nothing you would see on “3rd Watch,” but is reality ever as dramatic as you see on television?
Sometimes it is. Lt Andre Eddins remembers entering the First United Methodist Church October 6, 2006. “Once we got to the basement it was super hot and full of smoke,” he remembers. ” I was down there by myself, but exited quickly.” His thermal imaging camera designed to spot flames from behind smoke showed nothing but white which indicated the basement was nothing but fire. It was time for an exit.
474 S. South Main is home to Station 2 which includes truck five and pumper 2. Opened in 1952, this station made history in 1968 when it became the observation post for law enforcement during Martin Luther King’s stay at the Loraine Motel. It also kept busy afterwards as the area became abandoned and empty buildings became fire hazards. Even as downtown was coming back in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s some 12 historic homes in the Vance- Pontotoc were destroyed by fire from 1979 to 1982.
“We make quite a few calls to high rises when alarms get tripped,” says Lieutenant David Allsbroke from pumper 2. “Getting up there is strenuous,” he adds. Truck 5’s lieutenant, Frank Davis, shows a bag of tools firefighters carry up the stairs when they investigate a tripped alarm. It is dead weight of about 50 pounds of metal. “Each firefighter wears about 75 to 80 pounds when you start talking about your turnout gear, airpack and equipment you carry,” Allsbrooke says.
A kitchen fire at the Exchange Apartments brought the truck, pumper and battalion chief Beverly Prye from the station and they had to use that 75 to 80 pounds to head up the stairs, fight the fire and to help a woman in a wheelchair get to the ground floor.
Davis and Allsbrooke both started June, 1985. They agree downtown development has been an improvement for fire safety though it has brought more people into downtown. “In this job you see some of everything. I remember a guy who tried to beat the train and lost,” Davis remembers. “The weirdest thing was a lady who had magazines and newspapers stacked up in her house. When we responded it was not safe. We almost lost her under the clutter.”
A January 4, 1986, fire at a home on Stribling still has an effect on Davis. An 18-month-old boy was burned to death. “It was the first time I actually saw a child burnt. It looked like a doll,” he remembers. He wrote a poem to help him deal with the event. Twenty two years later, recites it from memory. The closing line is sad and ironic… “If only they had a smoke alarm, this story would not be told.”
“Wicker man” was playing on the big screen TV at station 1 at 211 Jackson Ave. The firefighters are making jokes as the campy horror-drama plays. The station takes on the feel of the old “Mystery Science Theater 3000” show.
Station one moved here in February, 1973 replacing the one Adams. The old location is now the fire museum celebrating the history and bravery of firefighting plus both fun and safety education for the kids. 35 years after its closing there is still the sense an alarm is about to ring and send companies responding.
Tony Cavallo, driver for Engine 1, remembers one day when an arsonist was wrecking havoc. “We had four to five house fires within a day within probably a ten block radius,” he remembers. Within a few days fires hit First United Methodist Church and Court Square annex. He thought the arsonist hit again, though the cause remains undetermined.
Michael Parks, Fire fighter private, was at another station “we had an apartment fire. There was an old lady and we got her out. That really told me this is what I want to do,” he remembers.
The physical demands are rigorous, but you see a variety of fire fighters. No, they are not all 25 years old and look like cover models from TRIATHALON magazine. They are in there 20’s on up and some are thinner than others. Lieutenant Joel Gray from Engine 1 calls them “firefighter fit,” and says being a firefighter is “40% physical 60% mental.”
“These guys know how to mentally control there bodies and control there breathing,” he says. “Being a good fireman is not about being physically strong it is about being able to be mentally prepared,” he says. “You don’t have time to look in a hand book. You got to know it and you got to snap to it,” says Lt Russell Sesley from truck 2.
Winter and summer are equally challenging, Cavallo says. Imagine a humid July afternoon in Memphis putting on a thick winter coat and helmet. It would be enough to make one long for a winter day. But when winter comes, “it can be freezing and you are having the spray of water blow back on you,” he says.
Station humor is legendary. Cavallo remembers a firefighter who returned a computer monitor to Best Buy and made a casual comment to one of the other firefighters that he forgot to include the cables. Shortly afterwards he got a call from a fellow firefighter saying he was the “return manager” for Best Buy and they would have to charge him for the monitor. And another firefighter called, supposedly from another department at Best Buy saying he will need to pay, or his wife would be called. He kept receiving calls that day. “It was going for about seven hours,” Cavallo remembers. It was stopped when someone in on the joke told the pranksters their victim was so upset he was close to going home sick.
Firefighter Frank Graham at Station 2 sees a bit of humor on rainy days. “People spin out on the trolley tracks and end up in our parking lot!” he says. “To keep from loosing sleep you need to look at the job with a little humor,” says Lt. Frank Davis.
The compassion inside the stations has been a tradition for many years. In 1931 in the height of the great depression station 5 housed and fed many down on their luck. “We served 98 meals tonight. Sometimes up to 140,” a firefighter said in a 1931 article. Station 1 hosts children from its neighbor across the street, St Jude Hospital, and during this reporters visit, different people from the streets came to the stations not for a handout but to shine shoes and to wash cars for money and food. The firefighters could always find work for them to earn a few dollars. Memphis and most other fire departments raise millions every year for the Jerry Lewis telethon. But one of the more fascinating stories of fire fighter kindness started at Memphis Fire Station 4.
1904 was still the era of horse drawn fire engines when John Connor, a developmentally disabled boy walked into the station which was about where I -40 crosses Main. The fire fighters took him in. They fed him clothed him and cleaned him. They even issued him a uniform, which they had to take away when he started directing traffic, but let him keep the hat. He rode engines to calls. He would take collections from the firefighters on payday never accepting more than $1. But most importantly they provided him with a family. His last station home was at Station 8 now at Mississippi and Georgia where a pumper was named in his honor. When he died November 8, 1979, firefighters were at his bedside in St Joseph’s Hospital, gave him a fire department funeral and paid for his burial. Obituaries generally mention family left behind and this one was no different. “He leaves 1,600 Memphis firemen.”