Back in the late 1800s when the first Ocala fire department was built, the office cost the city just $5,000 and featured two sliding poles. Today OFR has six offices and the last of those to be constructed came at a cost of $1.5 million. Yes, times have changed. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that the men and women of OFR are still ready—day or night—to help their neighbors when the siren sounds. In honor of Ocala Fire Rescue’s 125th anniversary, Ocala Style takes a look back at 20 of the department’s most memorable milestones.
01. From Foot Power To Horse Power
When your house is on fire, the few minutes it may take the fire department to arrive on scene can feel like an eternity. Now imagine if the firefighters had to actually run to your home, pulling the fire truck behind them. That was a reality for Ocala’s first residents in the late 1800s. Fire horses weren’t used until 1894, allowing rescuers to arrive on scene much faster. By 1916 technology had advanced to the point that motorized vehicles replaced the horses. In case you were wondering, those first horses were given new orders—assisting the city’s garbage collectors.
02. A Hairy Situation
These days many employers want their employees to appear clean-shaven. Not so prior to the 1970s in the field of firefighting. In fact, back then firefighters were required to have a large moustache and beard. The reason? As strange as this may sound, the men would wet their beards and insert them into their mouths, their beards acting as somewhat of a filter for dangerous smoke when entering burning buildings.
03. The Bucket List
While Fido may appreciate the hydrant on every corner in your neighborhood, chances are you don’t give them a second thought. Prior to 1885, Ocalans whose homes or businesses were burning had to rely on a string of volunteers to form a bucket brigade to bring water to a fire. You can imagine how many structures were actually saved with this almost Flintstone-like means of firefighting. At the time, though, that was the only option. Today that red (or sometimes yellow) fire hydrant supplies an abundance of easily accessible water.
04. The Siren’s Song
Dogs used to be trained to run alongside the fire apparatus and bark to alert the citizens of an approaching fire truck. The next logical step? A continuously ringing bell was added to the trucks around the turn of the century. Of course today we’re all familiar with the high-pitched shriek of the fire truck’s siren. You can hear it from a mile away. Literally. A little bit of trivia: OFR’s 1955 ladder truck, most often used for parades and local events, is still outfitted with its bell out of tradition.
05. A Medical Makeover
The firefighter’s duty is no longer just to fight fires. Nowadays these men and women are trained to handle a variety of traumatic and medical emergencies, in addition to fighting fires. With cross training as both emergency medical technicians and paramedics, Ocala’s firefighters are capable of accessing a victim’s condition and administering potentially life-saving medication until the patient is able to be transported to a hospital. Ocala Fire Rescue had some of the first paramedics in the entire state of Florida; its first graduating class began serving the people of Ocala in 1977.
06. Before-The-Job Training
A strong back and a stronger desire to help people—years ago, those were the only qualifications to become a firefighter. Now candidates for employment must be a high school graduate, a graduate of the Florida State Fire College program, and a certified EMT/paramedic. And then the lessons really begin! Firefighters are expected to maintain their medical certification and take a variety of continuing education courses. Specialized training in areas such as hazardous materials and fire inspection and investigation are also available.
07. Welcoming Women
Twenty-five years ago, in the mid-‘80s, Marilyn Johnson became Ocala Fire Rescue’s first woman on active duty. With Johnson’s hiring, Ocala became one of the first fire departments in the state of Florida to employ a female. Since then, women have maintained a steady presence within the department and many have worked their way up through the ranks. Lisa Gray (above), who has been with the department since 1989, is OFR’s current battalion chief of training and EMS. “I’ve always wanted to help people,” says Lisa, a single mom to three girls. “I make a positive difference in somebody’s life.”
08. Who You Gonna Call?
Do you know your best friend’s phone number by heart? Probably not! Speed dial number two in your cell phone ringing any bells? In an emergency do you think you could recall a seven-digit phone number accurately and quickly? Prior to 1990 folks in Ocala had to do just that. In the event of a fire or other emergency, there was no 911 to call. Going back even further, in the late 1800s, Ocalans often had to run to the station personally to alert the on-duty firemen. Can you imagine? According to myflorida.com, 911 was established statewide in May 1997. As of September 20, 2005, Wireline Enhanced 911 or “E911” services began providing the Public Safety Answering Point with the telephone number and the address from where the call originated in all of Florida’s 67 counties. These days, our 911 system goes even further and includes the widespread use of cell phones. As of March 31, 2008, according to fcc.gov, all counties reported Wireless E911 Phase I and Phase II completion. Phase I service provides the call-back number and the location of the cell site. Phase II provides the capability to receive the call-back number and the location information (latitude and longitude) provided by the service provider.
09. Statistically Speaking
Alright, let’s talk numbers. Ever wonder how often the bell sounds at the various OFR stations? In 1898, just 25 fire alarms sounded for the entire year. (Granted, our population was tiny back then despite being the fourth-largest city in Florida in population.) In 2009, OFR responded to 19,007 alarms. That’s an average of 52 calls a day between OFR’s six stations. Take this into consideration: The city of Ocala (OFR’s primary responsibility) is 49 square miles and houses more than 54,000 permanent residents. On any given day, though, more than 150,000 people pass through Ocala for work, shopping, or other appointments. In 2008, Ocala Fire Rescue was named the 28th busiest fire department in the country based on a run survey conducted by Firehouse magazine. Very impressive, indeed.
10. From Flames To Fill In The Blank!
Firefighters can never complain that their job is mundane. At any moment they may be called upon to fight a fire, deliver a baby, or remove a victim from a badly mangled automobile, all in the same shift. A firefighter’s training far exceeds that of just fighting fires anymore. Specially trained firefighters are taught to safely mitigate hazardous materials incidents, remove victims from collapsed structures, and provide medical care to patients dealing with a variety of medical emergencies. And you thought your day was stressful!
11. Beyond The Call Of Duty
In case the above-mentioned duties weren’t enough, Ocala’s firefighters also take on a special role when disaster strikes. They’ve traveled to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans after Katrina and Florida’s panhandle after Ivan to assist local agencies, and have battled miles of wildfires racing through Florida’s forests. No matter what the disaster leaves behind, the men and women of OFR are ready to serve and help in the aftermath—even when the call of duty involves traveling to destinations outside of Ocala.
12. The End Of Innocence
September 11. When we hear that date, our minds reel back in time to 2001. I bet you remember exactly where you were that morning. Most of us sat glued to our television sets, watching in disbelief as the events of the day unfolded. For some, the tragedy hit a little closer to home. On that fateful day 343 members of the New York City Fire Department lost their lives when the towers collapsed. Some 1,000 miles to the south, members of Ocala Fire Rescue began the day as they did any other. Administrative Battalion Chief Wendell Rora recounts what life was like at OFR on September 11, 2001.
“I was on my way into work, listening to a radio show when they announced the first plane hit,” he says. “When I arrived at the station everyone was huddled around the televisions watching the news coverage. I sat down and did a little work. At the time, I didn’t know what was to come. After the second plane hit the tower, the reality began to sink in.”
As a precautionary measure, OFR was put on an alert status and told to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.
“I remember watching a newscast and the reporter announced that car alarms were going off everywhere,” Wendell says. “I knew those weren’t car alarms. They were PASS (Personal Alarm Safety System) devices worn by the firefighters. When a firefighter stays motionless for an amount of time, an alarm begins to sound. It’s a very loud, shrill noise. Hearing those alarms going off and knowing why they were going off really hit home. Public safety as a whole is a brotherhood and sisterhood. We go to work every day knowing that we may not make it home to our families.”
13. A Day In The Life
How many of us feel like we spend so much time at our offices that we might as well sleep there? Well, for firefighters, that’s a reality. Twenty-four hours on, two days off, 24 hours on. Whew! So what do they do while they’re at the station between calls? Well, sleep for one. But they also spend many hours a day running through training drills, learning new skills, and cleaning the equipment. Think today’s firefighters have it tough? Think again. In 1929, our firemen worked 149 straight hours at the station. That only left 19 hours of family time each week. In 1935 they were given their first full day off per week, and in 1941 the department switched to a two-platoon system, making the firefighters work 84 hours a week.
14. A Family Affair
As long as there have been sons and daughters, they’ve been following in the footsteps of their fathers and mothers. The McEarcherns are one such family. John Theron McEarchern started as a firefighter in the late 1930s. Some decades later, his son George McEarchern would join the ranks and work his way up to battalion chief. “When I first started, we had seven or eight men in the station,” George recalls. “When I retired in 1988, I had moved up to managing 24 men. There wasn’t a day that I wasn’t anxious to get up and go to work.” Today, George’s son, Theron “Mark” McEarchern serves as battalion chief, just like his dad. “The camaraderie with your fellow firefighters is the best,” George says. “When you’re working 24-hour shifts, you eat together, sleep together, and work together. It’s like a big family.”
15. Firefighting For Free?
Would you work for free? Probably not! Our area’s earliest firefighters must have, though. Ocala was founded in 1846 and Ocala Fire Rescue wasn’t founded until 1885, so for 39 years somebody had to put out the fires, right? The earliest documentation available states that in 1895 OFR had just three paid employees and the men lived at the station. In the event of a fire, an auxiliary force of 17 men was available to help. Today, Ocala Fire Rescue is 146 employees strong, including dispatchers, administration, and firefighters. How much do they make? In 1901, firemen were paid just $35 a month; in 1963 that number rose to $330 a month; and today the average starting pay for a firefighter/paramedic is $32,000.
16. Give A Hoot, Fill The Boot
Since 1954 firefighters from across the nation have come together for one very special cause: to help raise funds for Jerry’s Kids. Ocala’s firefighters are no exception. This once-a-year weekend campaign has firefighters collecting money on street corners and in medians for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. So next time you see our men and women in uniform with a boot in hand, give them a dollar or two because they add up fast. In 2008 OFR raised $5,785 for MDA.
Over the years Ocala has seen its fair share of large fires—some accidental, some not. Here’s just a small sampling of some of the area’s most well-known blazes.
17. Becoming A Brick City
Ever wonder how Ocala got the nickname “The Brick City?” Unfortunately the story isn’t a happy one. On Thanksgiving Day 1883, five blocks of the downtown Ocala business district, made of wood at the time, burned to the ground. There was no organized fire department in the city. Following the disaster, city leaders and residents demanded the formation of a fire department and in December 1883, $2,500 worth of fire bonds were sold to raise much-needed funds to purchase fire equipment. The following year would bring a rapid redevelopment of downtown Ocala—this time with bricks, stone, and metal.
18. Remember McCrory’s?
If you’ve lived in Ocala since the late-‘60s, then you know that the current U.S. Attorney’s Office building on the corner of Magnolia and Broadway was at one time three stories tall. That changed on February 13, 1969, when the second and third floors were destroyed by fire. Only the second floor was rebuilt. The McCrory’s Variety Store on the first floor lost all its merchandise as a result of smoke and water damage. The fire reportedly began in the air conditioning system on the third floor around 8pm and firefighters remained on scene through 5am. Damages totaled more than $300,000. This fire marked the first time the city used its big ladder truck to fight a major fire. The blaze drew an estimated 3,000 curious onlookers.
19. Farewell To Fontainebleau
On May 1, 1988, the second floor of the popular Fontainebleau Racquetball Club was destroyed by fire. The fire was immediately deemed suspicious and destroyed more than $1 million dollars worth of the $3.3 million dollar structure and its contents. In a St. Petersburg Times article, then-Fire Chief Larry McLemore said, “The Fontainebleau fire was the most damaging act of arson in the city’s history.”
20. First Baptist Set Ablaze
On October 24, 1991, a fire destroyed Ocala’s historic First Baptist Church building. The complex, which covered a city block, was fully engulfed in flames. According to Star-Banner reports, arson was suspected and damages totaled more than $4 million. The main building was constructed in 1926 and was listed with the National Register of Historic Places. At the time, the First Baptist fire was the 22nd in the state to be investigated by the Church-Arson Task Force. The church’s fire followed a week of suspected arsons throughout the city of Ocala.
By Brian Stoothoff
A lot has changed in 125 years. What, no whale oil?
Never fill lamps after dark, even if you should have to go without a light.
Never put a lamp on the edge of a mantel or a table.
See that the lamp wick is always clean and that it works freely in the tube.
Never take a lamp to the closet where there are clothes. If necessary to go to the closet, place the lamp at a distance.
Use candles when possible in going about the house and bedrooms. These are cheaper and cannot explode.
Matches should never be left where rats and mice can get hold of them.
Keep a flashlight with spare batteries in case of emergencies. Never use oil lamps or candles.
Never leave the kitchen while cooking or microwaving.
Store a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and know how to use it.
Have at least one working smoke alarm in your house. Change the batteries twice a year during time changes.
Unplug electrical appliances when not using them.
Children should never touch or play with matches or lighters. They should be taught to find an adult if they find these items.