Wellman fire department celebrates 125 years

By John Butters. The JOURNAL


WELLMAN ? Emergencies don?t wait for times that are convenient. Emergency personnel can be called out on birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. For 125 years, first responders have been doing just that in Wellman

Wellman Fire Chief Jeremy Peck said his community has a good group of volunteers at the fire station. ?We?ve got the people with the biggest hearts ready to go day or night. You couldn?t ask for a greater group of people,? he said.

Founded in 1893, the Wellman Fire Department is celebrating its 125th year of service to the community. To mark the occasion, the fire station hosted an open house for its retired firefighters on Wednesday, following the Wellman Fourth of July parade.

Looking back, both retired and active firefighters say that while the equipment has changed, the department?s goal remains the same: to serve the community to the best of its ability. ?Our mission hasn?t changed, but we do a lot more. Our role has expanded and so has our training,? said Jim Seward, Assistant Fire Chief and a third-generation firefighter.

Seward said firefighters receive more types of training that when he joined the department in the 1970s. ?Today?s fire department is like a Swiss army knife. We have more medical training now. We all need to be able to perform CPR. But we are also trained in search and rescue, handling hazardous waste emergencies, mass shootings and grain bin extractions. It is more than just firefighting,? he said. ?We even do storm-spotting.?

The equipment has undergone a complete transformation from the one-truck fire station of long ago. The trucks are bigger, carry more equipment and have longer ladders than those of yesteryear. ?We don?t just put water on a fire anymore. Depending on the type of fire, we can add foam that is more effective in putting out a fire. In the old days, all we had was water,? said Seward.

Outfitting a firefighter has changed as well. Seward estimates it costs $2,500 to suit up a modern firefighter. ?We used to wear a canvas coat, rubber boots and gloves. They could melt on you,? Seward said.

Today?s fires are different from the past, Seward said, due to the materials used in new homes. ?Buildings burn differently now. They used to be made of wood. Now construction includes particleboard and other types of material with resins and plastics. The smoke can be toxic. You have to know the construction of a building that is on fire. We need air packs when we go in,? he said.

Another change is the amount of reporting and tracking required of modern fire departments, especially the fire chiefs. Modern chiefs are well trained not only in firefighting techniques, but in handling the new challenges presented to public safety agencies. In addition to his own training requirements, Chief Peck?s job includes more administrative paperwork and overseeing an increased schedule of training for his team. Peck said that each firefighter must certify in firefighting 1, CPR and Hazmat training in his first year and fulfill continuing education units each year after.

Considering the amount of personal sacrifice required of a volunteer firefighter, it?s surprising that a small community can fill its ranks.

When asked why they do it, most firefighters talk about the culture of the fire station, the fraternity that exists between its members. They also appreciate the public?s expressions of approval and esteem for firefighters.

Jack Seward, Jr., who served with the fire department from 1977 through 1990, said the fire department has always enjoyed a position of trust within the community. He said the department was called upon to solve a lot of problems that might not have been on the usual list of duties and responsibilities.

?Especially in years past, whenever something happened that needed to be fixed, people called the fire department. And we would go and either figure it out or find someone who could,? he said.

As an example, one winter, condensation froze in the local gas lines, shutting down fuel to people?s homes. The firefighters were asked to go door-to-door re-lighting pilot lights for those needing assistance, Jack Seward said.

For some, the responsibility of community service has been handed down for generations. Jack and Jim Seward are the sons of Jack Seward, Sr., a former fire chief. Jim is a former chief and their grandfather, ?Zip? Kuhns, was also a fire chief.

Chief Peck?s son Rex is also on the roster. Training Officer Tracy Owens and his son Trever are fellow firefighters.

The family feeling extends beyond the department. Since most of the firefighters grew up in Wellman, they are serving family as well as neighbors. It?s a calling, and the benefits can be substantial.

?You have the satisfaction of serving your community. You have the camaraderie of your friends. But you have to have the desire to help other people,? Jim Seward said.