A 1909 bell used to be the only alarm Milton had to notify residents of a dangerous fire. Monday, the bell tolled again, four times as is the century-old custom for firefighters fallen and passed.
Congressman Jeff Miller, Mayor Guy Thompson, and members of Navy and volunteer fire departments joined Chief John Reble at Milton's Fire Department headquarters to honor a century of firefighting in Milton.
Miller said, "For 100 years the Milton Fire Department (MFD) has served the community since a fire destroyed downtown Milton." According to Reble, three major conflagrations destroyed most of downtown Milton in 1885, 1892, and 1909 before the city decided to officially form its first volunteer fire department, which it did a century ago Monday under Fire Chief Pinkney M. Bruner. Miller said he was proud of Milton's sixteen-member crew with a response time of less than four minutes before presenting Reble an American flag from the nation's capitol.
"It is untold how many times this department saved structures and lives over the years," Thompson said as he stood mere blocks away from the Imogene Theater, still standing due to the cooperation of the MFD and several other departments and first responders. According to reports, two firefighters from the 2009 blaze almost lost their lives after a roof collapsed.
Brian Watkins, city manager, said, "Fire protection and emergency response never get a day off. You have to be ready at any moment and any time." According to Reble, decades passed before the MFD could act at any moment. He said Rusty Grundin was the first paid firefighter, hired in 1954. According to Reble, he was a nighttime firefighter. His job was to answer the phone any hour in the night and drive the truck to the fire where the other volunteers would meet him. Six years later, the department became a 24-hour operation with the addition of a daytime firefighter.
Above speakers and flags a framed picture honored the department's history, displaying the original chemical fire truck, a 1914 American LaFrance Chemical Engine on a Ford chassis, purchased the same year the department came to be on the left and a standard pumper truck on the right, according to Reble. He said the truck was the first purchased in Northwest Florida and acted much like a fire extinguisher, creating water pressure chemically. The first equipment the department operated had two wheels and no engine. Reble said these tools were three hand-drawn hose reels and 1,500 feet of hose used in conjunction with the 110-foot water tower erected in 1910. According to Reble, pressure came from gravity sending water down the tower and out an opened hydrant.
He said in 1962 the fire department relocated to a new station at Susan Street (now Bruner) and Berryhill Street and three years later the department filled out with two 24-hour shifts, each having a captain, first captain, lieutenant, fire chief, and two firefighters.
Despite the growth of the department, the areas surrounding Milton grew too fast for the MFD to handle alone, so during the 50s and 60s other fire departments appeared such as the Pace Fire Rescue District and Bagdad Volunteer Fire Department. He said Milton helped in their early stages providing old equipment and now these departments have a mutual aid agreement.
This partnership was put to the test in the 2009 Caroline Street fire. According to Reble, during Milton's early years, it was not a question of if a building would burn down in a fire but how many. He said the cooperation of MFD and all of the responding departments saved the Imogene Theater. Those other responding firefighters came from Allentown, Avalon, Bagdad, East Milton, Midway, Munson, Pace, Skyline, Whiting Field, Century, Pensacola, Ensley, Ferry Pass, and Osceola. Reble said the material of the Imogene's roof and the firefighter atop a truck's ladder watching for floating embers kept the fire from spreading, but credited most the cooperative effort by all the involved departments and emergency personnel for containing the damage.
After the fire fighter honor guard members tolled the bell, Walter and Susan Schumann of Santa Rosa Pipes and Drums played "Amazing Grace." The hymn finished, they slowly stepped together past MFD's Pumper 23 truck, their drones fading unlike the memory of MFD's triumphs and firsts alive in the bell, alive in the picture of the 1914 LaFrance, alive in the history Reble retells, and alive in the 16 capable members of Milton's firefighters.