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Happy 125th birthday, RFFD!

<i>Bob Burrows photo </i> The River Falls Fire Department invites everyone to its 125-year anniversary celebration Saturday, Sept. 25. Kneeling left to right: Doug Rudesill, Dan Moe, Troy Malmer, Mike Moody, Chris Cernohous, Ed Vlack, Pauly Cudd, Gary Eloranta and Carl Gaulke. Standing left to right: Frank Holter, Gene McKahan, Sean Slaikeu, Adam Larson, Tom Schwalen, Matt Johnson, Ryan Pace, James Rimer, Ben Quayle, Nathan Baar, Danny Nicholson, Paul Whiteside, Mike Nicholson, Bill Lubich, Jonathan Gau...

The River Falls Fire Department invites everyone to celebrate with it 1-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, at the fire hall, 115 N. Second St.

The fall fling marks 125 years of volunteer firefighting in River Falls and takes the place of the department's annual open house held just before National Fire Prevention Week in October.

Firefighter Pauline Williams, a 17-year veteran of the department, said it organized the event so that citizens could help celebrate and have some fun.

The free event offers food: Brats, hot dogs, soda and cookies while they last; live music; kids' activities including an inflatable bounce house; and some equipment demonstrations such as a thermal imaging camera. Williams said the camera looks for a heat signature, thereby enabling firefighters to find hot spots inside a wall or a person who may be unconscious inside a burning structure.

Event guests can get an inside look at most parts of the fire hall, and Williams said all the fire trucks will be parked on the street for people to see. Citizens can also meet and talk to their local firefighters, including River Falls' first full-time paid fire chief, Scott Nelson.

The department began planning the fall fling long ago, with the goal of making it a free, public event. Some sponsorships and a stipend from the city enabled it to meet that goal.

"We did receive generous donations through local, financial institutions," said Williams.

The celebration includes the Rural Fire Association, which works in conjunction with the RFFD to protect the towns of Clifton, Kinnickinnic, Pleasant Valley, River Falls and Troy.

Then, now

Asked how she thinks firefighting has changed over the years, Williams said, "We're actually seeing a lot less fires."

That may be due to better fire detection and protection in the home with smoke detectors and sometimes, sprinkler systems; less-flammable materials; and citizens' higher consciousness of fire safety.

Advancing technology makes fighting fire a lot more scientific than in those days when a "bucket brigade" passed pails down a line to the fire.

For example, firefighters use more foam than water to fight fire, tools and technology enable firefighters to work more efficiently, skills stay sharp through rigorous and constant training, and fire trucks offer more help than ever.

"You can get more firefighters on the trucks," said Williams, "as well as more equipment."

She says the department used to sound the bell to call firefighters to the hall. Later it retired the bell in favor of a telephone-tree notification system. Now she says each of the 38 volunteers carries a pager that sounds the alert.

The department's first fire bell, purchased in 1885, now hangs in Heritage Park -- just across the river from Veterans Park and across Maple Street from City Hall.

Though fire notification methods have changed, Williams said there is one constant about the fire calls: They never know when it's coming. It could be the middle of the night or workday; it could be during a family event, football game or dinner out. No matter when it comes, they must go.

Williams said firefighters' uniforms have evolved significantly. As in the 1913 picture with this story, they wore open helmets and rubber coats plus carried axes and pike poles for tearing down walls.

Now non-flammable suits cover them head to toe and include face protection and air packs.

"The things that burn these days are so much more toxic," said Williams, using for examples synthetic building materials or a hybrid car.

Burning passion

Williams said about the volunteer firefighting job, "You have to have the heart to do the job."

The volunteer firefighters receive a bit of pay -- $24 per fire call and $16 for each training meeting or drill. Officers receive a $100 stipend per month, and firefighters also get a nominal amount -- $10-$15 - to do fire inspections, presentations and community education

The per-call pay remains the same whether the fire lasts for 45 minutes or goes all night, as in the case of this year's UW-River Falls hay barn fire.

Williams confirms that firefighters also do a lot on their own time - additional training, administrative tasks, maintenance and other extra effort.

The veteran flame fighter emphasizes the key role volunteers' families play in supporting the department and enabling firefighters to do the work. They bear with missed events, high anxiety and many sacrifices.

She said it is a privilege to be a firefighter, to be there for and help people at an extremely difficult time. The department tries to ease the trauma of a fire and hopefully prevent the worst-case scenario.

She also enjoys doing fire-safety education in local schools for grades K-5. Kindergarten tykes get a ride on the fire truck during their first week of school.

Whenever Williams goes to a school, she asks kids if they remember that fire truck experience. Williams said every time, all the hands go up.

She reiterates that the community is always welcome to attend the programs, and she encourages parents who home school their children to contact RFFD for a presentation. Williams hopes in future years to add an education program for middle- and high-school-aged kids.

Williams said the profession often puts into sharp perspective what is important, and adds, "It's extremely rewarding."