September 21, 2016

Photo Essay: In the Line of Fire

I think the first time I was aware of firemen and firefighting was when I was in kindergarten, and a few of them were walking through the front door of my parents' house.

It was remarkable, because nobody ever walked through the front door. My mother only ever opened it to get the mail.

At the time, I was sitting on a piece of furniture in the front hallway called a deacon's bench.

I knew that whatever was happening must be serious, because no one was ever allowed to sit on the deacon's bench. It served primarily as decoration, except for the times it momentarily held the mail that had come in.

And it was serious, although our house wasn't exactly on fire—what my mother had mistaken for smoke was actually soot from when a bolt of lightning hit and went down our chimney and extinguished itself in the basement, sending black dust all over the house through the heating ducts.

The first call my mother made was to my father, who was working his night job.

"I think the house is on fire!" she said.

"Did the fire department?"

"No—I called you first!" My mother wasn't always the most rational being on the planet.

"Well, call the fire department!" My father, however, had a knack for being incredibly logical, even in the most incredulous of circumstances.

So there they were, a half dozen firemen in full regalia, combat gear from head to toe, traipsing through our house and stomping on our hardwood floors with their boots on, without even wiping them off first.

They were heroes to me—and not just because they didn't find a fire anywhere in the house.

I didn't want them to leave, but once it became clear that my mother's call had been a false alarm, their work there was done.

Since then, I've been picked up and taken to the ER by some EMTs in a fire department ambulance, and I've visited a fire station or two, but I haven't had much reason to really learn about firefighting.

But, of course, since I want to know about it—and there isn't much in this world that I don't want to know about—I headed over to the "Old Station #10" in Long Beach...

...a 1925 former fire station that has been converted into the Long Beach Firefighters Museum.

Tucked away on a residential street in Long Beach, you'd never know it was there... for the 1958 Mack Pumper, originally assigned to LB station #7, parked outside.

Volunteers formed the Long Beach Fire Department in the early 1900s, with a fire station behind city hall.

Now, it's got 23 stations, in addition to a beach station and the fire headquarters.

This dangerous job is no longer just for firemen...

...and they sound sirens now...

...instead of ringing bells.

The hoses are no longer made of leather, nor carried in a hand- or horse-drawn hose wagon... the only way to see one is to visit the Firefighters Museum (which happens to have a Robinson from 1894).

They've got an entire collection of restored classic cars, trucks, and wagons...

...some that were actually used by the LBFD...

...and others from around the world.

In that old fire station building, which had been replaced by a new station #10 right next door, you can also find a 1935 GMC "Squad"...

...and several other vintage vehicles that illustrate the evolution of firefighting in Long Beach, and of the U.S. fire service in general.

And as part of the museum's educational efforts, they actually take some of these antiques out on the road—mostly for one of Long Beach's many parades.

While firefighting in Long Beach began unofficially—before there was even a station—in 1897 with 28 volunteers...

...who used hand-drawn equipment (like the 1890 Rumsey ladder truck) and then upgraded to horse-drawn wagons...

...Long Beach was actually the first to operate a piece of motorized fire equipment on the West Coast.

The department was completely motorized by 1914.

It's hard to imagine real people using some of that equipment—and to fight real fires.

The 1907 horse-drawn Amoskeag steam fire engine is like something out of a Steampunk dystopian fantasy film.

And it still works.

And, boy, does it whistle.

The museum also takes donations of various sorts, and welcomes items even if they're not from the Long Beach area, as long as they're related to firefighting.

They can still print out the ticker tape from a call made at a vintage fire alarm box, which used to be the only way to summon the fire department if you thought your house was on fire. Circa 1915, there were 36 of them in Long Beach.

Depending on when in history that call was placed, the firefighters might've shown up in a helmet made of leather (which was lightweight but absorbed water), metal (which conducted too much heat), plastic (which would melt), or the more modern fiberglass. The museum has plenty of examples of all of those.

They've also got a collection of gas masks and fire protection suits (like those worn at Long Beach Airport)...

...but the real highlights of their collection, for me, were anything on wheels—especially the truck they're going to restore next.

I can't wait to see the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company's Model N-S-4 returned to its original "fire engine red" color.

The firefighting force in Long Beach has had to deal with all sorts of emergencies over the course of its history—from false alarms to real fires in homes, warehouses, and even the oil fields of Signal Hill.

And then, of course, there was the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. At least two firefighters died from injuries sustained while responding to an emergency in its aftermath.

It's worth noting that although Long Beach Airport does have its own fire department, local engines from LBFD also come out to the airfield to respond to engine fires, crashes, and other emergencies.

Sometimes, there's no fire for them to fight. But it's important that they be there. It can be incredibly comforting to know that someone is out there fighting for you.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: LA's Oldest Standing Police Station
Photo Essay: The Rusty Ruin of Antique Machinery

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