When a fire engulfed the Post Office in Silver Spring in 1915, nearby residents joined a bucket brigade and began throwing water at the flames.
Residents met soon after, and within a few months, Silver Spring had its own volunteer fire department. Operating out of a shed, the fledgling fire company’s first vehicle was a horse-drawn 60-gallon wagon, equipped with a farm bell to alert the volunteers.
The Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department has since grown to include three locations in Montgomery County. It will celebrate its 100th anniversary Saturday with a dinner at the Fillmore Silver Spring in downtown Silver Spring.
Last year, the department’s three stations responded to 15,000 calls, the vast majority for medical help. So far this year, Stations 1, 16 and 19 have been averaging a combined total of almost 1,400 calls a month.
Jonathan Bart has been a volunteer emergency medical technician for 20 years, 15 with the Silver Spring department.
“I like helping people. That’s why I started doing it,” he said, adding his interest arose while watching the television series Emergency!, which aired in the ‘70s.
By day, Bart, 51, works for a commercial ambulance company, transporting people – most of them elderly – to medical appointments, their homes, rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes. In the evenings, he is a volunteer emergency medical technician at Station 1.
As a volunteer, he is required to work two 12-hour shifts a month, although Bart often does more than that. While not on a call, Bart checks out the ambulance’s equipment, making sure everything is ready for the next emergency.
Gerald Leener has volunteered for nine years, since he retired. He enjoys helping people, staying fit and staying focused during emergencies. He is an EMT and ambulance driver.
“Driving this at high speed is risky business,” he said, especially on “rainy, cold nights on the Beltway. You are trying to weave through traffic.”
Through the years, the Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department has been involved in many events, including the suicide bomber incident at Discovery Communications in 2010, the Washington-area sniper shootings in 2002 and the 1996 MARC-Amtrak train collision in which 12 people were killed.
Firefighting and EMT work have not changed greatly over the years, but equipment is often updated. Before veterans returned home from Vietnam, ambulances were used mostly to transport patients. But as medical personnel learned from their war experiences, the role of EMTs and paramedics expanded to help the injured and sick on the way to the hospital.
But the biggest change, said Deana Cairo, department president, is the personal protective equipment. “They used to just put a helmet on,” she said of firefighters. They had no breathing apparatus, no special protection over their everyday clothes and no reinforcement in their boots.
“It used to be sort of a badge of honor” not to wear special clothing and to end the day “looking sooty,” Cairo said. But that attitude changed when firefighters began getting cancers, heart disease and respiratory diseases at rates far higher and at a younger age than the general population.
There are 40 active volunteers who operate the ambulances, medical units and fire trucks at the station on Georgia Avenue, said Cairo. The three stations are staffed mostly by career firefighters during the day. There are 11 paid firefighters at the Georgia Avenue station, 12 at Station 16 on University Boulevard East and nine at Station 19 on Seminary Road.
Station 1 is Silver Spring’s original fire station. Brightly painted walls depicting fire scenes decorate the building. Even without an emergency, everyone was busy on the day a reporter visited. People were meticulously hosing down an ambulance, others moved moving equipment from one ambulance to another and still others pumped iron in the gym.