Tooele County has a storied history, from the stations on the former Pony Express Trail or land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
There may not have been a better collection of living history in the county than when 13 former Tooele City fire chiefs, as well as the current command staff, gathered at Fire Station No. 1 behind Tooele City Hall at the end of June. The opportunity to gather so many previous leaders of the volunteer fire department came in the lead up to the organization’s 100th anniversary.
This Saturday, the Tooele City Fire Department will celebrate 100 years with a ceremony at 11 a.m. at Fire Station No. 1, offering attendees a glimpse into its history. In addition to Tooele City residents, the event has been opened up to fire departments around the state.
While the fire department was first recognized as a permanent organization in 1919 with its 23 charter members, it was initially organized in 1910. The city bought its first pumper the same year, and appointed a chief in 1914.
While none of the former chiefs assembled at the station were alive for the birth of the department, the contributions of its founding members were definitely felt.
Tom Tate, who served as chief in ‘82-’83, joined the department in the ‘60s and described how it had evolved during his involvement.
“The level the department is at today is right on par with a professional department,” Tate said. “So we’ve come a long way in 50 years. And we owe an awful lot to the charter members of the fire department who organized it 100 years ago.”
When he joined the department, Tate described the fire department as a “surround-and-drown operation.” He said in the following decade plus, the department started inside attacks, positive air exhaust fans and pagers replaced telephone calls.
Before using pagers or telephone calls, the department relied on a siren, which could be heard throughout the city to notify members of a fire, according to Wayne Dow, chief in ‘82-’83. The department’s phone system followed.
“You’d lift the phone up and the operator would say the address over and over on the telephone. Then we finally moved on to pagers,” Dow said.
In 1980 and 1982, the department purchased a pair of 1,500-gallon pumper trucks. Around that time, every member was outfitted in full turnout gear, according to Tate.
Tom Adams, fire chief from ‘96-’97, cited the long commitment by Tooele City to provide equipment to enable the volunteer department to do its job. He said the city has been really good when it comes to purchasing and upgrading equipment.
“As the city’s grown, the need has been there and the equipment has grown as well,” Adams said. “I know when I started, the equipment that we had to support the fire was all stored in an old bread truck and that bread truck was modified by the firemen. And we’d actually drive that bread truck to the fires because it had the fans and had the SCBAs and equipment and stuff.”
Now the necessary equipment can fit in modern fire engines and other apparatuses, and the evolution of tactics and equipment has been intriguing to watch, according to Bucky Whitehouse, chief in ’16-’17.
“As trucks changed and tactics changed and equipment changed, it’s been really interesting to see how its progressed,” Whitehouse said. “Granted, now trucks are bigger, have more capabilities, but it’s real fun to see the history behind how it all evolved.”
The long-running commitment from Tooele City, including the mayor and City Council, as well as outstanding leadership have contributed to the department’s success, said Jim Jensen, chief in ‘86-’87. The volunteers who give their time in training and by putting their lives on the line are a critical part of the department’s success, he said.
“And those things have really contributed to making Tooele City the top volunteer fire department in the state, and probably in the intermountain area,” Jensen said. “These guys today are right next to the level of a paid fire department and they’re doing it on a volunteer basis.”
The former chiefs assembled at the fire station represented the diversity of employment in the department, with school teachers, salesmen, heating and plumbing technicians, the county’s emergency management director and treasurer, among others. The department is comprised of an amazing group of people, said Gary Vario, chief in ‘08-’09.
“It’s been that way when I got in in the 80s and it’s just a big group of people that really care about the community,” Vario said.
The department grew to 50 members in 1956, the same year Fire Station No. 1 was constructed and a 1,000-gallon Van Pelt pumper was purchased. The department remains fully staffed with volunteers today, with a current waitlist of seven, according to Tooele City Fire Chief Rick Harrison.
David Buck, who served as chief in ‘80-’81, said he was involved with the department when Fire Station No. 1 was first occupied.
“It’s been great,” Buck said. “The only thing is, you’re chief of the department and the head of all these guys and you’re responsible for their safety and everything. It grows on you, then after your term’s over, instead of chief you’re demoted to become an engine company captain.”
Buck’s comments were greeted with a chuckle from the former chiefs. Each chief serves a two-year term, then transitions to the captain role. From there, members eventually move off the active roster to the senior list.
When Marvin Lee, chief in ‘88-’89, had to leave the active roster, it was the end of a family legacy dating back to the department’s founding. Lee said his son had joined the department but moved away from Tooele for work, snapping the continuous active roster streak.
“I hated that I had to turn in my resignation in at the time and go on the senior list because I’m the end of it,” Lee said. “And there’s no chance of another Lee being in there …I was the end of the line.”
In addition to family legacies, the legacy of leadership runs deep in the Tooele City Fire Department. Gary Coon, chief in ‘12-’13, said the department has done a good job keeping its members safe over the years.
“One thing about a chief officer in this fire department, and I think every one of these guys would agree with me, is this is a very aggressive fire department,” Coon said. “We get in quick and as the chief, your biggest fear is getting somebody hurt.”
The department has remained tight knit over the years, according to John Curwen, chief in ‘02-’03.
“I just want to say that this department, beside 50 plus guys, you’ve got a lot of friendship,” Curwen said. “These guys will do anything for you. You can ask any of these firemen if you’ve got problems on your home, they’ll come and help you. So it ain’t just fighting fires, we’re a family.”
The sentiments were echoed by Glen Caldwell, who served as the department’s secretary for 13 years before becoming chief in ‘92-’93.
“The faces changed but the attitude never changed,” Caldwell said. “It’s the greatest organization I’ve ever belonged to. They’re just like brothers to me.”