A warm August night in the Village of Wales, Wisconsin, 1923, ten-thirty p.m., a fire breaks out in Otto Falk’s hotel on the corner of Genesee and James Street. Everyone in the village turns out to form a bucket brigade, the only fire protection immediately available at the time. Fire apparatus from nearby Delafield and Waukesha is called; but due to road conditions of the day, it is midnight before it arrives. At two a.m. the fire is declared under control, however, it is well into the following day before the blaze is completely extinguished. Total losses are estimated at $50,000. Gone are Falk’s hotel, Robert Lohda’s Blacksmith Shop, and Phillip Brook’s Implement and Hardware stores. The debate that began after a similar fire in 1906, was settled once and for all: the village must have an organized fire department. Business leaders circulated subscription forms throughout the community and raised $1,680.00. The money was used to purchase the area’s first piece of fire fighting equipment, a 4-cylinder Chevy truck with a chemical fire extinguisher mounted on it. A local farmer by the name of John Rees was appointed Chief, and the Wales Volunteer Fire Department, as it was then called, was born.
In 1929, a village hall with a garage for the Chevy Truck was built on Elias Street, just north of Main off the Village Square. Still standing today, this building served as the “fire station” for the next 29 years. In 1932, a new rig was purchased to replace the Chevy truck. A Packard car re-configured to contain the chemical extinguisher, ladders, and other equipment; had all the makings of a real fire truck. Nonetheless, if two men got on the vehicle’s rear step and the clutch was let out a bit too fast, the front wheels came off the ground. With a booster tank and pump replacement in 1939, the Packard served until 1946, when the most important purchase in the then twenty-three-year old department’s history was made.
The Wales Fire Department purchased its first fully equipped fire engine in 1946: a new Chevrolet custom-built Peter Pirsch truck with a 500 gallon-a-minute pump and 1,800 feet of fire hose. For 24 years, this engine served as the department’s first-line piece of equipment. When retired, it was purchased by Bill Vandorf of Antigo, Wisconsin. It is said the old engine can still be seen today in Memorial Day and 4th of July parades across the state.
With no municipal water supply from which to draw, combating fires in a rural environment presents a unique challenge. Rural fire departments have to supply their own water. In 1948 the Wales Fire Department met this need with the purchase of a portable pump and a used International truck fitted with a 1,500 gallon water tank. A second such tanker was purchased in 1952.
As the department accumulated personnel and equipment, it became obvious the little station on Elias Street could no longer serve as an adequate base of operations. In 1958, a new fire station and village hall combination was built on South Street next to the Village Park. This building served to house the department for nearly 50 years.
Perhaps ironically, the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system as we know it today was born on the battlefields of the 20th Century. From the volunteer ambulance squads of World War I, to the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units of the Korean and Viet Nam Wars, the value of immediate pre-hospital care in saving lives and hastening recoveries had been demonstrated again and again. Yet here at home, as late as the mid-sixties, emergency pre-hospital care typically consisted of little more than loading victims into station wagons and driving them to the hospital as fast as possible. With the publication of The National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council’s report, Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society in 1966, this tragic discrepancy in pre-hospital care was made known to Congress. As a result, the Department of Transportation developed the first National Standard Curriculum which defined a wholly new category of health care provider trained to bring emergency medical services from hospital emergency rooms to the scene of the injury: Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). In 1971, Wales Volunteer Fire Department was one of the first departments in Waukesha County to send members to receive this training.
With trained EMTs now among its membership, the department was in need of an ambulance to get them to the scene and allow them to provide proper EMS services. Through many hours of research, sweat, and mechanical ingenuity, department members took the station’s equipment van – a 1970 Ford Econoline van – and converted it into an ambulance. With no functioning air conditioning, no heat, and none of the technological amenities of today’s ambulances – driver’s had to let their foot off the gas in order to generate suction – the Econoline nonetheless met all federal and state specifications of the day. With this, by early 1973, the Wales Fire Department was one of only ten departments in Waukesha County to have both EMTs and an ambulance with which to provide emergency medical care.
In addition to advances in practice and technology, the 1970’s brought with it significant social changes. Not least among these was the rise of women in areas of society previously dominated by men. Fire departments were undoubtedly among these areas. Women were first allowed to serve on the Wales Fire Department in 1971. At that time however, they were relegated to a service-level designated as “Special Actives” As “Special Actives”, women could perform the functions of firefighters and EMTs but were not allowed to vote as fully recognized members of the department. In 1979, however, with roses and an official proclamation, then Chief James Morris announced at the station Christmas party that the current and future women of the Wales Fire Department would be made full-fledged members with voting rights, rank, and potential for advancement.
The search for a new fire engine began in 1984. Little did the department know how long this process would take. After several trips to manufacturers around the state, the Wales Fire Department signed a contract with Peter Pirsch in 1985 for a new engine. Before the engine was complete however, Peter Pirsch Company went bankrupt. The engine and the department’s hard won $6,400.00 down payment were lost. Wiser but undaunted, the department resumed the search. Finally, in April of 1988, a Pierce Arrow 1250 GPM Pumper was purchased from Benlin Fire Equipment for $144,600.00.
A significant advance in the field of EMS was the introduction of defibrillation in the mid-1980’s. This technique was proving hugely effective at saving lives across the country. Seeing the need to incorporate defibrillation into its service, the Wales Fire Department held a fundraiser in 1985 to help offset the cost of a defibrillation machine – $7,000.00 – and the training to use it – $1,500.00. With EMTs trained at St. Michael Hospital in Milwaukee and Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, Wales became one of just six departments to take part in Waukesha County’s Defibrillation Pilot Program in 1986. By 1990, Wales and all other Waukesha County departments were registered at EMT-D status.
(Fire Chief Jim Morris accepts a donation check for the purchase of a heart defibrillator.)
With the “Aids Scare” of the late-eighties came heightened awareness of the risks associated with infectious and communicable diseases. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) developed requirements for health care workers to protect themselves from bloodborne pathogens such as human immunodeficiency viruses and Hepatitis B. In 1989, the Wales Fire Department began requiring Hepatitis B shots for all EMTs. The cost of this initial series of shots was $5,000.00.
After nearly twenty years of service, the converted Ford Econoline Van was replaced with a brand new ambulance, a 1990 Ford chassis with a Horton Modular, at a cost of $72,585. The Econoline was donated to the Wales Public Works Department where it continued to serve for many years.
In 1992, department members began putting together specifications for a new engine to replace the 1977 IHC Fleetstar. One key specification, it was agreed, was sufficient water capacity so that initial responses would have what was needed for effective offensive attacks. After several discussions and visits to manufacturers, the members agreed upon the Pierce Dash Tandem Axle Fire Apparatus. At a cost of $248,000, the Pierce Dash, complete with 2000 gallon tank, was delivered to the South Street station in 1995. The largest vehicle the department had ever owned, it consumed what area was left of the station’s apparatus bay. The need for a new, larger fire station was made plain.
As the population of Waukesha County continued to grow, so did the county’s need to better organize its fire services. In 1996, a new four digit unit numbering system was devised and put into place. First, the county was divided into four quadrants. Second, departments in each quadrant were listed in alphabetical order and given a number of sequence. Third, apparatus was organized into categories – ambulance, pumper, tanker, aerial device, officer, etc. – and given numbers as well. Wales falls in the county’s third quadrant and is the seventh department, alphabetically, within that quadrant. Thus, all Wales apparatus and officers would now be identified by the numbers 3 and 7. The second two numbers were carried over from the old system to avoid confusion. Ambulances, for example, had always been numbered in the “50’s”. Therefore Wales’ ambulance, which had always been identified as 556, would from this point forth be identified as 3756.
1998 marked 75 years since the formation of the Wales Volunteer Fire Department, one of the village’s longest running organizations. The membership decided to formally recognize the event through various activities designed to bring awareness to the department’s proud history. Historical information was gathered and put on display at the station. Articles about the department’s past, present, and future were placed in local newspapers. And citizens were invited to a station Open House. The 75th anniversary was made all the more poignant in that it marked a point of significant change for the department. The drive for a new station to be built had begun in earnest. The need for a full-time chief was becoming plain to see. And The Wales Fire Department, as it had been known, would cease to exist.
Since its inception, the Wales Fire Department had always been made up of volunteers from Wales and the surrounding Town of Genesee. The only geographic criterion for membership was that volunteers live no more than four minutes traveling time from the station. By the late 1990’s, officials from Wales and Genesee began to talk seriously about forming a joint fire district, a concept originally proposed in 1986. Prompted by the increasing expenses of providing sufficient coverage for the area’s rapidly expanding population, the issue could no longer be avoided. The Town of Genesee had always paid the Village of Wales for emergency services on a per-run basis. By now, however, 66% of emergency calls were coming from Genesee. The Town found itself paying two-thirds of the bill for service. In addition, half or better of the department’s members resided in Genesee. The writing was on the wall. Officials gathered joint fire district pacts from nearby municipalities – Summit, Palmyra, Eagle – and modeled them in the creation of a new Wales Genesee agreement. A six person commission was then recruited from among citizens of both municipalities to oversee the business operations and budget of the joint fire department. Finally, after much legal and political wrangling, the agreement was signed. As of January 1, 1999, the Wales Fire Department would heretofore be known as the Wales Genesee Fire Department.
By late 2000, the need for concentrated full-time leadership of the Wales Genesee Fire Department was reaching crisis level. State requirements and mandates, community projects, and daily paperwork had all become far too abundant for one person to execute properly on a part-time basis. Department members lobbied hard for a full-time chief. A needs analysis, job description, list of qualifications, and interview questions were put together and presented to the Joint Fire Commission. Finally, in January 2002, with all legal and political considerations worked through, The Wales Genesee Fire Department hired its first full-time chief, Gregory Jezak.