DENVER – When the first firetruck rolled into Denver in 1958, Lee Killian jumped on board and didn’t get off for the next 47 years.
Killian served as one of the first volunteer firefighters for the-then newly formed Denver Volunteer Fire Department. He was also chief from 1962-88, and he still serves on the board of directors for the fire department that recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.
“About 25 or 30 of us jumped in, and we was going to be firemen,” Killian said of joining the group in the 1950s. “We didn’t know anything about it. Thank goodness the Lord looked after us and nobody ever got hurt bad or anything.”
A look back
Killian was one of the firefighters who dedicated his time and service without payment. There wasn’t a paid firefighter for the department until 2001, Denver Fire Department Chief James Flynn said. But in the earlier years, the volunteers paid membership dues.
The first building that housed the Denver Volunteer Fire Department was built by volunteers, which included sourcing and sawing the lumber to build it. In the early years, the firefighters didn’t have pagers so they relied on telephones to notify them of fires.
The original firetruck was a 1958 Chevrolet, which cost the department $7,126.83.
That first house fire the firefighters fought was at one of the fireman’s father’s house on Saint James Church Road. Killian remembers it was icy and they were lucky to get the firetruck down the road, which was mostly dirt at the time.
“Monroe Sherrill, (who) was the captain at the time I think, climbed up the ladder,” Killian said. “There was a little hole in the siding just over the kitchen, and he stuck one of those high pressure nozzles in there and sprayed a little bit. Poof, the fire went out. We really thought we were something. Back then there was more woods and brush fire than there was anything else, though. This was a farming community.”
And while there weren’t as many calls to keep them busy, they learned the skills in other ways. In the early 1960s, the Denver-area firefighters got a lot of training burning houses purchased by Duke Energy to clear land to make Lake Norman, Killian said.
Changing of the gear
The equipment the firefighters wear and use has changed tremendously from when Killian first started.
“We had 11 or 12 suits of clothes, which consisted of a fireman’s helmet, a coat and boots,” he said. “That was it. After two or three years, we heard about an air pack where you could go in where there wasn’t any oxygen. It had two little round cylinders on it, and it would last 20-25 minutes. We used it several times.”
The turnout gear has also changed tremendously.
The firefighters’ gear was once shared by the volunteers, but today, each has their own equipment worth more than $10,000 for the entire outfit, which includes an air pack that all firefighters must use. This equipment has a limited shelf life and is supposed to be recycled every 10 years, which adds to the cost.
“With all the carcinogens in the smoke because of the plastics, now we’re looking at how to keep that off the firefighters’ skin,” Flynn said. “That whole technology is evolving at a rapid rate right now. Cancer has become a huge issue for the fire service.”
And that initial firetruck has been changed out for upgraded models, too. A new firetruck today would cost in excess of $500,000.
Trained to help
Kevin Coffey, who served as fire chief after Killian from 1988-97, also started as a volunteer firefighter.
“A friend of mine from high school was in the fire department and invited me to come,” he said of joining in 1978. “Finally I decided to start coming. The years went by, I was young and energetic, and I guess I got involved. One thing led to another, and I got elected into different positions, including chief.”
The first year Coffey was a firefighter, the department answered 42 calls. When he retired in 1997, the department answered approximately 240 calls. Today, it answers approximately 1,200 calls a year.
There’s been other changes.
“Way back when Lee (Killian) was there originally, the fire department actually operated the ambulance because, to my understanding, that’s the only ambulance there was,” Flynn said.
The training requirements have also increased dramatically for firefighters.
At one time, classes were held at the fire department in the evening, and firefighters could take them as often as they wanted to.
“In the fire service, everybody can do something to help,” Coffey said. “I’ve known people who were in the fire department for 20-plus years, and there were certain things that they didn’t or couldn’t do. As an example, there were some people who didn’t want to go to a wreck, but they didn’t care how big a fire was, they’d go to it in a heartbeat. You weeded out what you should and shouldn’t be doing through these classes.”
Today, the training requirements are more than 400 hours to get certified, and all firefighters are cross-trained for all potential calls, said Flynn, who started with the Pumpkin Center Fire Department in 1992 and has been chief of the Denver department for the past 17 years.
Currently, the Denver Fire Department has 25 full-time firefighters, approximately 20 part-time and 16 volunteers, said Flynn, who was one of the first paid, full-time firefighters.
But despite the number of changes over the last 60 years, the mission of the department is still similar to that of when Killian and the other volunteers got on the firetruck for the first time.
“We are still working for our community, and as the fire chief, everybody out here in our district is my boss, that’s how we have approached that,” Flynn said. “We work directly for our community and are here to do the best that we can for them no matter what the situation. Being that community organization, even given that we’ve grown significantly, we’re still community-based and orientated to the degree that we can be.”