James Carswell, Albany fire chief, addressed members of the Dougherty Rotary Club, speaking on how firefighters and their methods have changed over the years. (Staff Photo: Jim West)
ALBANY — Members of the Dougherty Rotary Club received a history lesson on the early days of the Albany Fire Department recently from Albany Fire Chief James Carswell talk about innovations in modern firefight and the charges through the years. Carswell has been with the Albany Fire Department 42 years, he told the group, with nine of them as chief.
The city’s top firefighter enlightened members with some history of the Albany and Dougherty fire departments, which began in the first half of the 1800s as all-volunteer organizations, Carswell said.
According to Carswell, since firefighters were dispersed throughout the city, the early method for announcing fires in progress was to discharge a pistol at the central fire station. Volunteers would know which part of town to go to by the number of shots fired. That system was replaced in the latter part of the 19th century, Carswell said, by a large brass bell which stands today at the main fire station on North Jackson Street.
Training for young firefighters was different 40 years ago than it is today, Carswell said, when newbies were simply told to “do what that guy does.”
“Now the new recruits receive a full 12 weeks of class where we teach them all aspects of firefighting. Then at their first week at the station they think they know more than the officer does,” Carswell said.
Still, there were certain distinct advantages to the recruits from “yesteryear.” Back before the Internet, young people were better at using tools, Carswell said.
“Now some of these new people come in and you have explain the difference in a flat head and Phillips screwdriver,” Carswell said. “If you give them a computer, they can work wonders.”
As a long-time servant of public safety, the chief has watched methods of injury prevention evolve.
“In the early days, they put lap belts in cars to make them safer. If you hit something going 60 miles an hour your hips would stop but not your knees or your shoulders.”
Carswell said that years ago the No. 1 cause of house fires was careless smoking.
“The majority of people smoked and they were careless with it,” Carswell said. “Most everything was made of wood or cotton fiber and burned really easily. A discarded cigarette or an ashtray falling over could easily start a fire.”
Today, the top problem in Dougherty County is kitchen fires, Carswell said, possibly because people nowadays don’t cook as often which may make them careless and not as familiar with cooking.
The No. 3 reason for that big red truck speeding from the the station — just behind false alarms — is medical calls. Carswell said that since firefighters are more widely placed throughout the city and county they can often respond more quickly to medical emergencies, including heart-related calls.
Some members seemed amazed when told about the life of an average firefighter, circa 1970. According to Carswell, a typical station house was an all-male “macho” sort of environment bearing scant resemblance to a modern facility.
“It was more like a sports locker room,” Carswell said, “With all the guys trying to impress each other.”
Carswell’s macho theme came through to members as he related how firefighters would dress for fires — all the way from hat to gloves — while holding onto the “tailboard” of the truck.
“It was quite an art,” Carswell said, to hold on, balance your knees like you were skiing and put on you coat, your hat and your gloves. All the while you’re doing it, it’s the driver’s job to throw you off. It was a macho thing.”
Today, firefighters dress before the fire, Carswell said, and ride to their destination inside the temperature controlled fire truck.
One of the greatest developments for firefighters — and for the safety of fire victims — has been the digital infrared imaging device, which allows firefighters to “see” obstacles and victims inside smoke-filled areas, Carswell said. Before its availability in just the last few years, firefighters were forced to maintain constant physical contact with one another, or were limited to probing smoke-filled rooms while keeping one foot against a wall.