January 20th, 2021

Local firefighting began with a bucket of water on the porch

By Lethbridge Herald on March 2, 2016.

Deputy fire chief Dana Terry spoke at the Galt Museum Wednesday about the history of the Lethbridge Fire Department. Herald photo by Tijana Martin

J.W. Schnarr
Local residents had a chance to step into the past and see the roots of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services recently at the Galt Museum.
Deputy Fire Chief Dana Terry spoke Wednesday as part of the “Wednesdays at the Galt” lecture series. Terry’s presentation, “The Early History of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services,” focused on the organization from its inception in 1886, up to 1925.
Terry discussed the lives of firefighters in those early days, what kind of equipment was used, the type of clothing they wore, working conditions and their interactions with the public and their chiefs at the time.
In 1886, the fire department was formed in response to the increased fire risk in the town of Lethbridge from climate, wind issues, surrounding grass and the use of wood in structures being built. Originally, the town used a bucket brigade to fight fires.
“People actually had to have a bucket of water on their porch,” Terry said. “But what they realized after they had a few fires was that it wasn’t quite enough.”
Terry said those early efforts to keep citizens safe from fires resulted in some of the features in the city that can still be seen to this day.
“That was one of the reasons this city was designed with quite wide streets and alleyways,” he said. “They wanted to minimize the risk of houses catching fire.”
Fire prevention was also an important part of the work done by the early Lethbridge Fire Brigade (as it was known then).
“They were doing fire inspections, they were giving out citations, and they were giving warnings to people about not having proper chimneys, not disposing of ashes properly.”
Early issues with emergency coverage led to the creation of the integrated fire and ambulance system that Lethbridge employs today. Terry said he was unable to find another example of a similar arrangement in another city in North America.
“In 1912, the city decided to take the ambulance away from the Galt Hospital and give it to the fire department,” Terry said.
“We took over the ambulance service at that point, and we’ve had it ever since. For more than 100 years now, we’ve operated in an integrated system where our firefighters are trained as ambulance attendants.”
Terry said he was able to trace the origins of that arrangement back to a few instances where there were issues with ambulance service prior to 1912, but one in particular involved a man named Joe Birnie who, in 1910, became stuck in a piece of machinery while at work and was badly injured.
“It ripped off his right arm and broke both of his legs,” Terry said.
An ambulance was called, but in those days, an ambulance could not transport people unless they were given permission from a doctor.
“They waited for over an hour before they were able to go and respond,” Terry said. “By this time, Joe Birnie is dead. The uproar from the town at the time was significant.
“That’s when city council decided, ‘Alright, we’re going to give it to the fire department, because we know they are always going to respond,’” Terry said.
Looking back at where the department came from also makes him appreciate where it is today.
“We’re certainly very proud of the people who work in our department today,” Terry said. “It’s great to look back in the past and see the people who made a difference then, and concentrate on the people we have now and the good work they do here.”
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