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Pequot Lakes: Fire department comes long way in 100 years

Volunteer members of the Pequot Lakes Fire Department install a sign above one of their earlier fire hall locations.

In 1917, the founders of the Pequot Lakes Fire Department likely never imagined the cell phones used today as fire pagers, the heat cameras used for overhaul or the inclusion of women on the fire crew. At the very least, they probably hoped that their work would live on 100 years later.

The fire department will celebrate those 100 years with an old-fashioned street dance Saturday, Aug. 5, on Government Drive and in Trailside Park, complete with food, beer garden and two bands. The Wylde Ryce Band, which played at fire department street dances in the 1980s, will reunite after more than 20 years of retirement to perform from 8 p.m. to midnight. The Muddy Waters Band will perform from 6-8 p.m.

The official Pequot Lakes Fire Department was not the first fire crew in the city, said today's chief, Tom Nelson. There apparently was a group of business owners who responded to smoke on the horizon before 1917, but most of the records from that group, ironically, went up in smoke many years ago.

Though they weren't the first to fight fires locally, the 1917 crew was the first crew to take on the official Pequot Lakes Fire Department title.

For many years, fire crews lived within earshot of the fire hall. Without phones, radios and pagers, the only way to summon them was with bells and sirens. That's what retired firefighter Neil Casanova remembers from when his father was a firefighter.

"What I remember most are the calls in the middle of the night," Casanova said. "At that time it was a siren thing. When the siren blew, he went."

Casanova was part of a familiar tradition in local towns. The son of a firefighter, he was almost guaranteed to follow in his father's steps, and he did in 1976.

"My dad was on the fire department when I was a kid," Casanova said. "It seemed like it was an exciting thing to do. When I got here I met some of the other fire department guys. It looked like it was interesting and that's when I started. It was always something I just enjoyed doing. It wasn't for recognition or anything. We don't make a lot of money doing it. It was just something I was interested in, so I did it."

Like the 1917 forebears, though, he never could have imagined the technology that would reshape the way firefighters got their calls or responded to fires.

"One of the biggest things is we've started getting calls over our cell phones," Casanova said. "When the call comes in and we get an address and map."

That was a change that most of today's firefighters witnessed, though before cell phones there were pagers, and before pagers there were "fire phones" at firefighters' homes. Casanova was partially responsible for installation of such phones. Firefighter Bob Peterson had a fire phone in his house downtown and at Thurlow Hardware, where he has worked since 1974.

"When I first started (in 1974), we had fire phones instead of pagers like now," Peterson said. "There was a bell on the outside of the fire station. When the fire calls came in, I could hear the bell ring. Then Neil worked for the phone company and installed an extension phone in the hardware store here. I had a fire phone right in the hardware store and one at home. For a long time I was the first one to the fire station. All I had to do was walk across the street."

Paging methods aren't all that has changed. Once it was necessary for firefighters to break open walls after extinguishing fires to check for hot spots. Today the search is less destructive.

"Thermal imaging cameras, those weren't around when I first started on the department," Nelson said. "It helps with labor and overhaul and not needing to tear everything apart. We can see the heat signature in the walls."

Aside from technology, the fire crew in Pequot Lakes has also changed homes since its founding. Originally, the department was based out of a large garage across from Thurlow Hardware. Approximately 1978, Peterson remembers relocating to a brick building at the current Snap Fitness location on Government Drive.

Fire phones persisted a few more years into the early 1980s. It wasn't until 2004 that the fire department, police department and city hall moved to the current building, the former Kinzie Candles building on Main Street on the east end of town.

"That was kind of a big change to go from one building to another," Nelson said.

Ultimately the relocations and expansions were necessary. The original building had only a few stalls for equipment storage. The second location had three doors and space for vehicles parked two deep. The newest building is the biggest of them all, making room for several tankers, engines and other rescue vehicles.

Over the years, veteran firefighters have witnessed many fires and rescue scenes. Ask any Pequot Lakes firefighter from before 1996 and the call that sticks out the most was the Breezy Point Resort Convention Center fire.

The call came in mid-evening of a cold winter night.

"The Breezy Convention Center was probably the coldest one I've ever been to," Peterson said. "It was in the winter time with 30 degrees below zero and a strong wind. The call was late evening, or late in the afternoon and we were out there all night. I was running the engine out in the open. Now we have enclosed compartments on the trucks."

"We had problems with things freezing up and trying to keep things from freezing up," Casanova said. "We had an engine sitting in the bay out in the lake. We worked from there and pumped water from the lake to the engines by the building itself. We just kept everything going. There was a lot of ice hanging once it started to cool down."

Amidst the dangerous fire calls, some things have remained the same.

"I guess it's still probably the old way," Casanova said. "You put the water on the fire. The engines have improved but it's still basically the way you take the hose and put the water on the fire. That's really the bottom line."

Some administrative tasks, however, have changed. It's only in the last 40 years that the fire department has allowed chiefs to hold more than two consecutive terms. Furthermore, the fire crew was a boys' club until Tina Harrington with the city water and sewer department joined in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. As the first female member of the crew, she raised some eyebrows.

"It was an all men's organization for years," Peterson said. "When I first got on there was no talk of female members. At first I was even opposed to it, thinking they weren't as strong as men, but they can be. They do their job well. They surprised me, so they were accepted."

There have been several female firefighters since, and now nobody, including Peterson, sees the department's two current female crew members as any different than the others.

In the past 100 years, the Pequot Lakes Fire Department has witnessed many fires and many changes. The department will celebrate its longevity Aug. 5 with an old tradition that fell by the wayside.

"They used to do a street dance, I think 1991 or 1992, was the last street dance they did," Nelson said. "They used to do them all the time. It was a great fundraiser but insurance for beer sales got kind of out of control and they decided to quit doing that and switched."

Peterson said insurance for beer sales went from around $400 to $4,000 in a short period of time. Before then, the dances were incredibly popular, especially after recruiting the Wyld Ryce Band. Peterson estimates that the department earned approximately $10,000 during one such successful dance.

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