In Case of Fire, Fire Department Marks 100 years

ASHLAND—A centenary slipped quietly by on Saturday, The Ashland Fire Department marked the 100th anniversary of what it considers its official birthday.

Ashland had used hurriedly organized bucket brigades for emergencies, but not until two serious fires in 1878 and 1883 did a move begin for creation of a formal organization.

On that day, the common council (forerunner of the city commission) created a hook and ladder company “for the suppression of fires.” That group was to consist of not less than 20 or more than 30 able-bodied men. The ordinance authorized appointment of a captain (John W. Spicer) and two lieutenants and set the duty of all members “immediately on hearing alarm fire, to repair at once to the carriage house” and head out with the equipment—which was hand pulled. They had 24 rubber buckets to pour water on the blazes.

I.N. Pollack and William Gehringer were named lieutenants. In 1888, Ashland sent a committee to Frankfort to buy a steam-powered pumper, used, for $1,000; it cost another $17 to bring it here by train. The engine was kept filled but fired up only after a call. Horsepower came with horsepower, and teams were kept ready, replacing the man-pulled wagon.

Minute books record other attentions, such as starting an engine company, with engineer and fireman, to be sure steam was ready when needed. Council also set a $50 fine for playful ringing of the fire bell.

The hundred years since Feb. 2, 1885, have been a major part of life in the City of Ashland. Firefighters take pride in the job they do, and they quickly point out that in this centennial year, Ashland has the “best per-capita fire loss rate in Kentucky.” That word comes from the Fire Chief James Hogsten, head of the department since 1971. He joined the group in 1952 and his time overlaps that of his late father, Leonard, who signed on in 1927.

But longevity and family association have been bywords on the AFD. In fact, the man known as Chief served for half the 100 years the department existed. Burris Hensley (no one used his first name, just Chief”) began in 1913, when there were only two small stations, seven full-time firemen and two horse-drawn wagons. He became chief in 1916—the year of the first motorized equipment—and stayed in the job until March 1963, when he was succeeded by Charles Riggsby.

When the first Hogsten arrived, firemen worked six days a week, on duty 24 hours a day. “By the generosity of the chief,” the present chief said, “they got to go home after one other day a week for three or four hours.”

Unionization and other factors have lessened that 144-hour week. It was cut in half by the time the son arrived, with firemen working every other day and getting an extra, or “Murphy” day once every two weeks. They now work 56 hours a week, working one day and off two.

A common aspect of that scheduling has been that firemen have had dual careers, fighting house fires one day and building houses the next, or performing some similar craft. “I encourage off-duty work,” Hogsten said. I hate to think a fireman would go home and sit down for two days. We have just about every trade represented.”

There are other lifestyles about firemen that have become institutional. More than any other group they spend time together, sleep in the same room, do their own cooking and housekeeping. On their calls they rely on each other for safety.

“It takes a special breed to be a fireman,” Hogsten said. The jobs are popular, especially during hard economic times. “We had 242 applications for three positions the last time there was a test,” Hogsten noted.

The 1885 volunteer crew drew $12 a year, cut by $1 for every fire missed and a quarter for missing drill. They were exempt from juries in the mayoral court. Today’s beginners get $14,810 and captains glean $21,000 plus.

In recent years, six women have applied for the jobs, but none of those have passed the written preliminary test, he said. The department has one female employee, June Preston, who became the first administrative staff 10 years ago.

The camaraderie involved in living together has a psychological impact on tenure. After the city’s worst fire, Valentine’s Day 1959, six veteran crewmen retired at the same time, likely influenced by what they had just been through.

One of their number, Kirby McGuire, 60, stayed on and became the department’s only fire-fighting fatality in July 1961 during a blaze at Black’s Marineland. One other fireman died on the job. In 1923, Richard Pemberton was killed when a train struck the engine he was driving.

While he lauds his department members for their effort in cutting fire losses here, Hogsten believes two other factors have been most instrumental in reducing fires. “Smoke-heat detectors and the addition of two full-time inspectors in this department have cut losses here by 50 percent.”

The department has been a way of life for others beyond its membership. Wives formed an auxiliary in 1952, and crewmen delight feting visiting firemen who come for conventions or fire-tower practice. Kindergarteners regularly tour fire stations each year. The department has been in nearly every parade in the city and many outside. Miss Flame competition was long a tradition, and firemen have taken the fore in cleanup and escape drill campaigns.

For two years in the mid-60s, the department provided ambulance service, bridging the gap between funeral homes and paramedics.

And, Hogsten says, home calls for opening locked doors and retrieving cats from treetops remain part of the life for Ashlanders and their firemen.

Updated: December 19, 2017 — 11:59 pm
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