Fire Department History … it's where we came from

I mentioned just the other day how Rhett and I talk a lot about Brotherhood. In our minds, it’s the foundation of the fire service.  Of course you can’t talk about Brotherhood without mentioning  TraditionPride, Honor, and Respect … to us, they go hand in hand.

It’s our HISTORY …. it’s why we’re here. Think about it … you wanted to become a firefighter for a reason. You seen or learned of something that you wanted to become a part of, or emulate. What you seen was built by other men … by the ones who came before us … the men from the days of Wooden Ladders and Iron Firemen!

It’s our job to continue building upon what they started and to never forget where it (or we) came from. The sacrifices made and lessons learned along the way. The names, their faces and all those stories in between that were told on the back step or around the kitchen table. They define us …it’s who we are.

How much do you know about the history of your Department? Do you have someone documenting or recording your history? Someone who archives news articles? A Department photographer?

We did at one time. His name was Maurice Wiseman. Now deceased, Captain Wiseman took it upon himself to document the history of the Roanoke Fire Department where he served for over 35 years.

Captain Wiseman collected every newspaper clipping that was fire related (or that mentioned the Roanoke Fire Department) from the early 1960’s until the mid-90’s.


He also documented our members.

Even after his retirement (March 2, 1985) he continued to visit the stations to photograph members.

Believe it or not, that’s me back in July of 1991. Captain Wiseman took the photo and archived it in what we now know as the Maurice Wiseman Project.

View part of the project on Face Book by clicking HERE .

 After Captain Wiseman passed away, his family turned all of his collection over to The Roanoke Firefighter’s Association IAFF Local-1132. It was there that Rhett stumbled onto the collection.

Rhett was not a Roanoke native. Unlike many of us who were 2nd or 3rd generation firefighters that grew up around Roanoke’s firehouses, Rhett had no prior connection to the RFD.

That didn’t matter because Rhett “gets it”. He understands what it means to be a firefighter. He understands that it’s more than a uniform. More than running the calls. Rhett “bought in” to the Roanoke Fire Department (and the Fire Service as a whole) and he paid with sweat equity.

Rhett took over Captain Wiseman’s collection and created the Maurice Wiseman Project. He sat out to continue the work Captain Wiseman started.

He ended up even writing a book on our History…. Firefighting in Roanoke (use this link to purchase a copy for under $20 The picture right is the cover).

The book covers Roanoke firefighters from the organization of the first volunteer companies through the progression of a fully paid Department and the implementation of a 3rd platoon.

In his own way, Rhett continued to document the Department through a blog. .. Although he included a lot of personal opinion etc, he also captured a lot of our history. Sadly, some members became upset over some of his postings and forced him to abandon his efforts.

In the video below, Rhett was interviewed about his book, Firefighting in Roanoke.

We had another member who captured some good photos throughout the years. Lt Mike Overacker is now retired but until recently, could usually be found on the scene of fires snapping pictures. Mike often times focused on the members rather than the fire and posted them to his site, Because of a conceived lack of support etc, Mike to has abandoned his efforts and even taken down the site.

The loss of both these sites is a shame …. so much of our history will now be lost.

Follow on Face Book. Click HERE and “Like”

I bring up all this talk of “history” for a reason. I recently got a refreshing reminder of just how important it is to us. You see, we’ve kind of gotten our little “Rookie Randy” interested in fire service history, antiques etc. He takes a lot of PRIDE in working for our Department and RESPECTS what the members before us have created.

He texted me the other day asking if I knew a “D. S. Wanson”. I didn’t. I thought maybe it could be one of the new kids but I wasn’t sure.

I texted him back asking why he wanted to know. He told me that he had found a Roanoke Fire Department belt buckle with that name engraved on it.

I asked if he was sure it was from the Roanoke Fire Department and he said yes. Then it hit me … it wasn’t “D.S. Wanson”, it was “D. Swanson”!

“UNCLE SWANSON” …. my dad’s first and long time Captain! I can’t tell ya how many memories I have of Swanson. As kids, my brother and I spent as much time as possible with dad, uncle Swanson and the men of Station #6. We spent just as much time around him when they were off duty … hell … we called him “uncle”.

Swanson was “old school”. He was one of em I think of when talking about the days of “Wooden Ladders and Iron Firemen”.

He served 43 years in the Roanoke Fire Department (1948-1991). When he retired, he had served the 2nd longest career behind Captain Givens. Today, I believe he’s 3rd because of now deceased Battalion Chief Bobbie Slayton’s tenure.

They weren’t easy years either … although he retired from Station #13 (which was considered a “slow” station at the time), he spent most of his career at the busiest downtown stations (#1 and #6).

Well obviously, I told Randy to buy it. He did. He brought the buckle in and I told him the story of who it belonged to. You could see the excitement in his face.

We did some digging and come to find out, another retired Captain actually made the buckle.

Apparently, Captain Mills (aka “Big Mills” due to the size of his hands) made several hose picks and buckles just like this one for the members back then.

I also have one of the hose picks he made.

I love to hear the stories of how the men made a lot of the tools they used back then.

Made as in “hand made”. There was a work bench and vice in every station and most times both were surrounded by the members on duty. Fixing this or building that. If they didn’t have it, they made it. If they broke it, they fixed it.

Well anyway, after hearing the story of the buckles origin, Randy wouldn’t let me pay for it. I thought “no big deal” … he’s probably planning to just give it to me … right? WRONG.

He knows me well enough to know what I was planning to do with it and he had the same idea … he wanted my dad to have it. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!?

With just a little over a year on the job, Randy is already showing just how much he understands Pride, Honor, Tradition and Respect.

A one year man giving back to a 30 year man. A piece of history … Fire Department history as well as Dad’s history.

That’s just another small part of what the Brotherhood is all about and Randy “gets it”. I was humbled to have been witness. Dad was honored.

I hope this can and will be an example for all you young members out there. Don’t wait. It’s never too early to get involved with your Department’s History, Traditions etc. Remember the men who came before you and helped create the job you so dearly wanted. Tell the stories …document and  share them. Most importantly, never miss an opportunity to listen to those of your fellow Brothers and Sisters … help keep our history alive ..after all, we’re now part of it!

Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines