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By Austin Andre
The Jerseyville Fire Department (JFD) has been serving the community for over 118 years and, throughout the decades, they have adjusted while still maintaining their commitment to protecting the community no matter what challenges are present.
The origins of the JFD date back to 1913 when Mayor Joseph M. Page decided the city needed an organized fire department after several fires threatened the downtown area in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s.
Before 1913, the closest thing Jerseyville had to a fire department was locals doing their best to contain and control fires.
The first members of the department were Chief J.H Williamson, Assistant Chief Charles H. Wedding, Secretary Harry Blish, Alvin Brinton, Frank Bayer, William Dower, Zoran Koontz, Ira Day, and Bert Bell. All were unprofessional volunteer members.
The first equipment for the JFD were two high-wheeled horse drawn hose carts. A four-wheeled hose cart and ladder wagon were added to the JFD the following year. Then the department’s first motor vehicle arrived ushering in a new era of fire fighting. The vehicle was a 350 gallon fire pumper mounted on an oldsmobile chassis. This was soon followed by a Ford chemical truck. All of these vehicles were purchased by local donations and subscription.
In the following years, several more vehicles were purchased by creative means, such as the department holding dances, shows and carnivals for the public in order to pay for the new equipment.
The newest vehicle the department operates is a “Quint” truck. The Quint is a multi-purpose vehicle. It has the capability of a ladder truck and pumper engine. It can lead the initial fire attack while carrying much of the equipment needed by the department, such as an aerial device, water, hose, and ground ladders.
Despite the new equipment, modern housing and building materials posed a new threat when it came to fire safety. JFD Chief, Keith Norman, shared details about the changing dynamics of firefighting.
“You used to have 15 to 17 minuets before a room was engulfed in flames. Now it’s more like 90 seconds,” said Norman. “Companies have been pushed to make everything so cost productive.”
Norman explained further, “Everything used to be made out of wood and natural fibers, but now things like tables, chairs, and cushions are solid gasoline.”
With such drastic changes in the last few decades, Norman described how the mutual aid agreement better protects the residents of Jersey County.
“Because of how the fires burn and how fast they burn, in order to protect people’s property, we have a mutual aid agreement with hundreds of departments across the state,” said Norman.
During the flood of 2019, mutual aid brought units from as far away as Chicago to help the JFD and other local departments manage the conditions. The ability to respond to more extreme situations was difficult in the early years of the department, which could find itself spread thin if emergencies got out of hand. The mutual aid agreement helps ensure not just the residents of Jersey County have adequate protection, but also ensures it for millions in Illinois.
Another challenge for the department has been the weather, something that has always plagued the JFD since its creation. Norman described how it’s affected the department.
“Weather affects us all the time. No matter what it is,” said Norman of the recent heat waves. “It’s like putting on wool socks, a winter coat and long Johns and standing by a bonfire on a 90 degree day. That’s essentially what it is.”
Firefighters wore lighter clothing in decades past, which made it cooler and easier to maneuver in, but the overall protection from fires was inadequate at best. Even with better protection equipment, new problems arised for firefighters, such as overheating.
Norman explained,“The equipment protects us, but greatly limits how long we can work when it’s hotter.”
Situations like these are where modern advancements like mutual aid are so beneficial for small departments such as the JFD, who can call in additional firefighters while others recover and rest from working in the extreme heat or cold. When colder weather arrives in the winter, the Department puts out several informational resources to help people stay warm and use alternative heating methods safely.
Finally, despite the ever changing world and several alterations of the department, one thing has stayed the same since the JFD’s creation in 1913, it’s an all local volunteer force. It takes over 300+ hours to become a certified member of the department, Norman shared his thoughts on how local residents serve the city despite all the dangers of being a firefighter.
“It is an unbelievable commitment from people’s neighbors, and that’s really what our department is,” Norman said. “It’s local business owners, farmers, contractors, city workers, school teachers, you name it. It’s people from our local community who are volunteering to go through a lot of training and put their lives on the line for their neighbors.”
The JFD currently has a staff of 20 full time and part time members, several of them have been on the department for well over thirty years. The dedication to service and community has remained a core part of the JFD as they continue to keep thousands safe. Just as it began 100 years ago, the department remains a force of ordinary people doing extraordinary things day in and day out.