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Fire Department History Is Garfield Ridge Topic

The Garfield Ridge Civic League meeting on Monday included a presentation by Mike Kovac, a retired Chicago Fire Department official, about the history of the fire department both citywide and locally.

Kovac, who now lives in Archer Heights, grew up in Garfield Ridge and joined the Chicago Fire Department in 1965. He rose through the ranks, working at various engine companies, to eventually become the coordinator of engineer training and driver training before retiring in 1998.

He gave his audience of about 20 gathered in the Kennedy High School library a quick history of the Chicago Fire Department, which was formed in 1835 as an all-volunteer force. The first paid position, engineer, wasn’t added until 1858, when the department had its first steam-powered pumper, called Long John.

ÒEven back then, engineers were important,” he said, noting that working with steam meant the engineer was in charge of a boiler system similar to those in trains at the time, or in buildings. He explained that the engineer’s primary role remains determining the exact water pressure needed for each fire, and the correct sizes of hoses and valves needed.

ÒIf they get it wrong, the firefighters could be fighting the hoses more than the fire, and lives depend on their skills,” he said.

He also went into some detail about the progression of fire houses in Garfield Ridge, Clearing and Archer Heights, as the neighborhoods grew in population over the years. He explained that prior to 1932, the closest firehouse was at Archer and Sacramento, in Brighton Park. But that year, the original firehouse in the area was at 64th and Central.

Then, when Midway Airport began to expand, a station was opened on the airport property.

ÒI remember when Austin Avenue was a dirt path,” said Kovac, who grew up at 52nd and Massasoit, and attended Mark Twain Elementary School and Kelly High School.

ÒBut even then, railroad crossings were a problem,” he said, noting that fire trucks traveling to the western sections of the neighborhood could be stopped by trains.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the firehouse at 56th and Narragansett, beside Kennedy High School, was opened, and 1967 when the one at 46th and Komensky opened.

He passed around several vintage photos, including one of the Cadillac ambulances that were in use in those years. They looked more like station wagons than modern ambulances, which now have advanced life-support equipment.

ÒThey probably gave a smoother ride than what we have now,” joked Marie Zilka.

In those years, he pointed out, ambulances did not pick up people at homes without a note from a doctor.

ÒThere are so many more things the Fire Department does now. We don’t just fight fires anymore,” he said. ÒWhen I started in Bronzeville, we expected to be called out to a fire every day. But that is not the case anymore.”

He explained that while fire calls are less frequent, ambulance calls keep the 98 firehouses in the city busy.

There are now 4,314 firefighting personnel in the department, and 619 paramedics, he said, explaining that many firefighters and paramedics are now cross-trained.

ÒThere are three basic 911 calls: police, ambulance and fire. When you call, say immediately what your call is about,” he advised his audience. ÒIf it is a fire call, you will be transferred to a fire dispatcher.”

He explained that Òthey have a protocol.”

He explained that several trucks will be sent to schools or other buildings where lives are at risk, but only one is sent initially to garage or car fires.

ÒIf it is a fire in your house, get out first, and don’t go back in,” he said. He and a couple of audience members recalled instances in which people escaped fires but then went back for a pet or belongings, and died. He said smoke inhalation is the most common cause of death in a fire.

ÒThe scope of the Fire Department has really expanded,” Kovac said. ÒThe role of the engine company has now become an integral part of EMS (emergency medical service).”

Hazmat, or hazardous material units, are also a big part of the fire department now, in the post-9/11 era in which the department must be able to respond to terrorism and a wide range of disaster possibilities.

Kovac said that city and suburban fire departments now work more closely together than they ever did, which benefits residents of both areas. Radios have been modified so the departments can communicate with each other, and respond to emergencies in both jurisdictions. For this reason, being close to communities such as Bedford Park, with its own hazmat teams and emergency services, benefits residents of Clearing and Garfield Ridge, he said.

His discussion also included stressing the importance of having working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, as well as fire extinguishers, in every home. He advised against having combination detectors, for both smoke and carbon monoxide gas.

ÒI think this was the best talk we have had,” said Bill Kuda, as he left the meeting.

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