BY VICKI DAUTH
"THE SIRENS YOU NOW HEAR IN DOWNTOWN PASO ROBLES ARE THOSE OF THE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONDING TO A CALL."
Those words were broadcast over radio station KPRL for many years, alerting citizens that the city's dedicated firefighters were on the job. The forty-plus men and women of today's Paso Robles Fire Department inherit a long tradition of excellence in firefighting and community service.
Records from the 1890's chronicle the efforts of the Paso Robles Hose Company #1. This group worked with the fledgling city council to insure that pipes and hydrants were installed throughout the city even before the streets were paved. They also made sure that ladders were distributed at various points around the city for use in firefighting.
In February 1890, a local blacksmith was contracted to make a triangle "to be used in pounding fire alarms." A short year later the triangle was already obsolete and so was sold for nine cents per pound. At this point the department began the first of many innovations that have consistently kept them in the vanguard regarding equipment and training.
The City provided Hose Company #1 with a bell and hose house. Later improvements included new doors and a cement floor for the hose house as well as a new street lamp outside with the City providing oil for the lamp. Stove wood for meeting nights was also requested. In the early 1890's, the city fathers asked to use the fire bell to sound a curfew every night "to give the young hoodlums warning that they were wanted home." The firemen, however, voted against this request and further decided that the chief should arrest anyone caught using the fire bell for other than fire company business.
In those early years the Hose Company held several balls at the Opera House on the corner of 13th and Park streets to raise money for uniforms "with blue stripes on the pants," and for badges, hooks and other incidentals. Before one such affair the firemen were divided on the question of whether or not to pay the $1 charge to use the lights at the Opera House. Their meeting notes state that after a vote was taken on the light situation, the Hose Company was disbanded. The next vote reinstated the group, but only those men who voted in favor of the lights remained part of the Hose Company!
By the early 1900's, the Hose Company had consolidated with the Hook and Ladder Company, and two motor-driven fire wagons had been purchased. The Paso Robles Fire Company moved to their new quarters on 13th Street between Spring and Park, and in the 1920's a new siren replaced the trusty bell which is now on display at the Pioneer Museum. The siren was activated from the Pioneer Garage across the street from the fire house. As the garage was open twenty-four hours a day, fire calls were taken there.
In the early years the fire chief and captains were elected by the men. O.F. Hedgpeth and E.T. Bollinger each served as chief during the 1920's. In 1936 Maynard French was selected fire chief, becoming the first to be selected by the city. "Fire French," as he was affectionately known by local youngsters, served as fire chief until 1965 when John Steaffens assumed the helm. Bob Adams was the chief from 1984 until current chief Douglas Hamp donned the chief's had in 1991. Bob Adams is now Chief of Operations and Terry Minshull is the department's first Fire Marshal. The Paso Robles Fire Department blossomed under the leadership of these people, becoming the first and sometimes only department between Los Angeles and San Francisco with the newest and best training and equipment.In the 30's, 40's and 50's, firefighters' "turnout" or uniform consisted of a black rubberized coat and boots and helmet. This gear was usually stored behind a door or in a handy closet at home for use in night fires. During the day the volunteers responded to alarms wearing their street clothes, picking up their helmets as they jumped on the trucks. Response time during this period was impressive. The siren sounded for two minutes and generally the first truck was rolling well before the siren stopped. Dashing up the sidewalks and through alleys from their various downtown jobs to the "new" station on 13th Street between Oak and Spring, the first volunteers to arrive picked up the ringing "hot line" phone and then noted the location of the fire on a big chalk board. Sometimes the first truck would be heading out the door while the man taking the call was still writing the address.
Sometimes, too, volunteers were almost too eager to get to a fire. One spring afternoon most of the department was involved in a softball game when the siren sounded. Seeing the smoke nearby, they dropped their bats and gloves and ran to the site only to realize that no one had gone to get the fire truck! Patrons of downtown businesses were sometimes startled when volunteers would dash out mid-sentence to respond to a fire call. Long time firefighter, Chuck Frazier, recalled customers who finished pumping their own gasoline at his Mobil Station while he ran down the alley to the fire house. They would then leave their money on the counter and wave to Chuck as he sped by on the fire truck. Employers of volunteers have always been very generous and understanding in their treatment of firefighters who rushed out at a moment's notice and returned later with a smoky scent still clinging to their clothes. The department has consistently utilized the job skills of their volunteers to augment the effectiveness of their firefighting techniques. Electricians, mechanics, paramedics, painters and contractors have all utilized their special skills in fighting fires.
Over the years the Paso Robles Fire Department has responded to numerous spectacular fires with an amazingly small number of injuries or mishaps. Probably the most well-know fire in Paso Robles history is the 1940 burning of the grand old Hotel El Paso de Robles.
Starting at about nine o'clock on a cold December evening, the hotel by morning was virtually consumed despite valiant efforts by volunteers and mutual aid of fire departments in neighboring communities. realizing that the central part of the structure was doomed, firefighters concentrated their efforts on saving the gracious dining room wing of the hotel and the stately bath-house, both of which were still standing amid the smoldering ruins the next morning. Among the many spectators on that night were Dr. Fred Ragsdale and Dutch Kleck. They photographed the burning hotel and then flagged down a north-bound bus, giving the driver their roll of film. Those pictures appeared on the front page of the next day's San Francisco Chronicle.
Another fire with far-reaching effect was the one that destroyed the old Grammar School on 17th and Vine in July 1953. Again aid was provided from other departments as well as citizens who moved hoses and offered support through the hot afternoon. The building was not saved and many young Roblans remember starting school that September in make-shift quarters at the fairgrounds.
The Hot Springs Hotel on 13th and Spring caught fire on a night in November, 1963. It burned through the night, and in the morning then Assistant Chief John Steaffens was giving an interview to an out-of-town newspaperman. Suddenly the reporter excused himself saying he had a bigger story to cover: President John F. Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas . . .
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