- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - At 93 years old, Sam Brubaker has been alive almost as long as the fire department in which he spent nearly three decades has been a municipal entity.

Brubaker, of Lawrence, joined the Lawrence Fire Department - now known as Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical - in 1947 after returning home from World War II the previous year. Firefighting was markedly different then, he said, working in a world where fires were fought without masks and rescue ladders were wooden.

“Toward the end, we got two Chem-Ox systems, but the canisters were $4.95 each, so the chief said not to use them,” Brubaker told the Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1GyQ1uh0 ). “And until the last few years I was there, all fire trucks had solid rubber tires and open cabs.”

The department’s a lot different now, as LDCFM marks its 100th anniversary as a municipal fire department. Since 1915, LDCFM has gone from 10 paid firefighters to 140, one station to five, and horse-drawn carriages to $1 million fire engines. Today’s firefighters are also certified medics, so the EMS personnel taking you away in an ambulance might be fighting a house fire on the next call.

Back in 1947, things were tough - especially for new firefighters, Brubaker recalled. When he first started on the department, he couldn’t understand how the maskless senior firefighters could rush into a burning building without being overcome by the smoke and heat. Brubaker recalled with humor the fire chief - who at that time was Chief Paul Ingles - would give the youngsters tips, but “the guys” wouldn’t.

“They would keep their nose next to that water hose. The water would give off oxygen,” Brubaker said. “I was 10 feet behind them, and I’d get nothing but smoke. I’d be choking to death to catch up with them.”

He didn’t stay the new guy forever, working his way up to captain before retiring in 1973. Since then, many have joined, climbed the ranks and retired after him.

“They fight fires now in all different ways than we did,” Brubaker said. “But a fire’s a fire; it doesn’t matter how you fight it as long as you get them out.”

Brubaker isn’t the first firefighter to say after the end of his career that the “new guys” have it easier. Looking through newspaper archives, many a former chief interviewed said their generation of firefighters had it tougher than those after.

In a 1953 Journal-World article that ran just before former chief Ingles’ retirement, Ingles said: “Here’s a scene that’s changed a little during the past 40 years.” Reporter Rich Clarkson called Ingles’ quote the “understatement of the day.”

In the article, Ingles recalled the days of horse-drawn fire wagons and an alarm bell atop the fire station to summon firefighters to the station. When Ingles started his career in 1912, the department wasn’t even a “department” yet. It would not change from a volunteer organization to a paid municipal fire department until 1915.

And 21 years before Ingles’ departure, former chief William Reinisch ended his career, remarking in an article that the “youngsters” of 1932 “who fight fires now do not realize what it meant in the old days.”

“We had no warm clothing, no rubber suits to keep us dry and no equipment with which to do much,” Reinisch said. “If we got a hot one it meant getting soaked to the skin and staying with it, winter or summer.”

“I guess some of that is showing up now that I’m getting old,” Reinisch said after his 38-year career as a Lawrence firefighter.

Now, firefighters not only wear masks but also thermal-lined, thick rubber boots (in Brubaker’s day, their rubber boots were no more than your typical rain boot).

Firefighters today also wear heavy, thermal garments with layers of fire- and chemical-resistant fabric, all of which are fit to each firefighter so that there are no gaps of skin showing when worn, current LDCFM fire chief Mark Bradford said. Brubaker, meanwhile, said his firefighting getup consisted of blue jeans and a raincoat.

Even the helmets are different, as modern helmets are constructed similar to football helmets, Bradford said, with the crown specially designed to protect the head from impact. In Brubaker’s day, helmets were like hardhats, as Bradford said they were essentially a “pressed-out piece of plastic.” Plus, each firefighter wears a mask that feeds compressed air to their lungs, even in the midst of thick, black smoke.

The biggest change, Bradford said, is the influence of technology. Firefighters now have access to computers with important information in emergencies, including GPS, floor plans of more than 500 Lawrence buildings, hazards in those buildings and even how much water is left in hydrants close to the fire at hand. This information lets firefighters save valuable time and create strategies when they see what they’re up against.

But it’s not just the firefighting that’s changed, Bradford said, it’s also the fires themselves. Previously, homes, furniture and other items were made with predominantly metal, wood and other natural products. Now, there are more plastics, composites and other materials that not only produce hazardous chemicals, but also burn hotter and faster, Bradford said.

“There are hotter temperatures inside as plastics melt and materials burn,” Bradford said. “Hence, we have to have coats and helmets because it used to be not near as hot as it is today.”

The byproducts of those artificial materials are also dangerous to inhale, causing cancer rates of firefighters to increase nationwide over the years.

“Think of a campfire; you can breathe some of that smoke,” Bradford said. “But the smoke that comes off houses now is combined with all of these chemical gasses that change composition when heated.”

What hasn’t wavered over LDCFM’s 100-year history are the basic qualifications a firefighter must have, according to Ingles, as he laid out in a 1952 Journal-World article:

“A good heart and a good pair of legs . but the first qualification is complete honesty.”

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Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com

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