Fired up about the job

One hundred years ago, on Sept. 20, 1902, the fledgling town of Bremerton had its first large fire.

The house burned down, but the work of the newly-organized volunteer firefighters, and their buckets, was declared a success.

At the time, the city was a collection of fire-prone shacks, and containing the blaze to one building was a difficult, city-saving effort.

Two days later, the City Council approved the first firefighting equipment purchase: a $175 hose cart, hooks, ladders and buckets.

Some things never change.

The Bremerton Fire Department’s history is outlined in a recently-created centennial book and their 100 years in Bremerton will be celebrated at this year’s Blackberry Festival.

In an effort that started nine years ago, department officials dug up pictures and stories from newspapers, former and present firefighters and longtime residents. The result is a book that traces the origin of the department to present day.

From all-volunteer to fully-paid staff, from horse drawn wagons to ladder trucks, the record depicts some of the city’s most devastating fires, including the Kona Village fire on Dec. 12, 1997 that left four elderly residents dead.

Built in 1920, the City Hall once housed the fire department and an anti-aircraft gun and soldiers’ barracks sat atop Station No. 1 on Pacific Ave. during WWII when the department was its largest. There were five stations and about 80 employees, compared to three stations and 55 employees today.

Putting out fires was the department’s original mission, but today it is only a small part of the duties.

Improved building codes, sprinkler systems and alarms have decreased the number of fires and the devastation they cause, but the department’s major transition was the introduction of emergency medicine to their services.

In 1967, Bremerton’s first dedicated rescue unit was commissioned. It was handled by several firefighters who received Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification at Olympic College.

In 1970, there were 708 fire calls and 16 first-aid calls. The numbers evened out in 1976, with 873 fire calls and 749 aid calls. Today, aid calls amount to more than 75 percent of the department’s 8,500 average calls a year. Fortunately, some of the calls may be nothing more than a cat stuck in a tree.

“If they don’t know how to handle it they call us,” said BFD Chief Al Duke.

The hardest task of putting the book together was to identify the subjects in all the pictures they collected, Duke said.

The book cost $23,000 to produce and was funded by advertising included in the pages. Three-hundred copies were ordered, and the few copies that remain can be purchased at the Blackberry Festival for $50. The proceeds will fund the purchase of centennial badges for the department.

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