Firefighters don’t generally retrieve kittens from trees anymore.
Fighting fires requires science, strength, stamina and speed. Modern firehouses are temples to efficiency and order. They are not quaint.
Except maybe a little.
McMinnville’s fire station on First Street is a gleaming modern structure, barely more than 20 years old, but it houses an exhibit detailing the fire department’s 137 year history.
The candy apple red centerpiece of the exhibit is the city’s second fire engine. It looks just like you want it to look: Shiny, red, with hoses and ladders and a row of fire hats lining one side. It’s still drivable, too, but has lately been spared any slogs on the roads. “Now, if they take it somewhere, they take it on a flatbed,” Donna Mehlhoff told me. Donna has been the office manager at the fire department “forever. About 13 years,” she said.
“Santa Claus used to ride in it,” she told me about the old engine, which has been a fixture in local parades for decades.
“When my son got married, the chief picked him up in it and drove him to the reception,” she told me. Beats a limo.
The firehouse’s exhibit is fun for kids. It was, um, fun for me, too. But kids are the target audience. School groups regularly tour the station. Parents bring their children in for entertainment and education. Also, the station is a fun, safe and low-stress way for a youngster to see a firefighter suited up and ready for action. Parents “like to get them used to seeing them in their uniforms so they won’t be scared of them,” Donna said. A trip to the firehouse thus is not just a perfect rainy day excursion, it’s part of a complete fire-safety plan for families.
If you take a tour, you might get to meet Rich Leipfert, the fire chief, or get a tour from Lt. Dale Mount, like I did.
Dale is the one who burst my bubble and told me firefighters don’t generally rescue kittens or keep Dalmatians on staff. Instead, he showed me the two bays, the variety of trucks and ambulances and patiently explained which trucks go out on which calls and in what combination. For example, did you know that firefighters bring a truck called a water tender with them to put out fires in rural areas? The water tender is basically a giant fire hydrant on wheels. Or, did you know that firefighters will sometimes use a foam that lowers the surface tension of water, making it possible to smother a fire and help prevent re-ignition?
I didn’t see a Dalmatian, but I wasn’t disappointed by my tour, for sure. Instead, Dale showed me the firehouse pole, still in regular use. The firehouse ceilings are high and there are a lot of stairs. Zipping down the pole gets firefighters on the scene precious seconds faster.
In fact, Dale showed me a few other time-saving systems in place. Firefighters will keep their gear on or near the fire engine so that they can jump in and get moving in moments. What looks like an unorthodox laundry pile is actually a pair of pants, called turnouts, with boots peeking through the leg holes. The coats are in the cab.
Firefighters must be able to don their air masks in 60 seconds. “Some guys can do it in 30,” Dale said. Yes, they’ve been known to race. “We’re all competitive.”
As much as I am charmed by the old-timey cuteness of some of the fire equipment on display, all of this efficiency and science is hardly new. One of the mysterious gizmos in the lobby exhibit is probably a tool for introducing soap into a fire hose, Dale told me.
Dale isn’t entirely sure how old the old fire engine in the lobby is. McMinnville’s fire department has had a long history — it was founded in 1874.
But he does know how to operate it. He’s turned the crank in the front to start its motor. And maybe, if you ask nice, he’ll show you how to work the siren.