By Dan Ravellette
“I (name) do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States; the laws of the State of Indiana, and the Codes and Ordinances of the City of Vincennes. And I will faithfully discharge my duties as a member of the Vincennes City Fire Department for the City of Vincennes, Indiana, to the best of my ability, so help me, God.”
These words have been proclaimed by hundreds of young, talented people throughout the storied history of the Vincennes City Fire Department. With this oath, citizens of this community took the initial step of a career in the field of first responders for putting out fires and saving lives.
The legend of the Vincennes City Fire Department spans many decades, each with its own contributions. Around 1928, the new home of the VFD Headquarters was constructed near Fourth and Vigo streets, just one block south of Main Street in downtown Vincennes. The virtual army who have donned the turn-out gear down through the years includes a tremendous variety of abilities and personalities.
One of these civic-minded servants is Ron Thomas, a former fire chief who began his career as a smoke-eater on Aug. 7, 1967, and retired on Aug. 24, 1994. During those years of service, he also held the positions of rookie, first-class firefighter, arson investigator and assistant fire chief.
Current fire chief Sonny Pinkstaff said there has been only one female firefighter in Vincennes’ history. Her name is Christy Miller and she served on the VFD during the administration of Mayor Howard Hatcher.
The two-story Firehouse No. 1 headquarters structure was designed with three bays opening out onto South Fourth Street. The ladder truck, aerial truck and the rescue units were carefully backed into these separate stalls, ready to lunge forward whenever the call for help was heard. The “alarm boxes,” which for many years adorned street corners throughout the city, relayed the distress information or critical messages to headquarters. The information was printed out on a piece of paper tape from a teletype machine located on the right side of the building under a set of stairs in what was designated as the Watch Room.
A well-worn wooden stairway over the Watch Room led up to the second floor where the living quarters and bedrooms were located. The kitchen area was where a large 4-foot-by-10-foot table stood, surrounded by as many chairs as it could accommodate. Another lineup of chairs was stationed along the kitchen wall, facing a tube-type console television sitting on the floor. The nine-person bedroom was adjacent to the dining area and the bed occupied by the assistant chief was nestled as closely as possible to the ‘fire phone” hanging on the wall within easy reach.
Equipment and other firefighting essentials were stored in a separate loft room, adjacent to the kitchen area. This room was also occupied by a pool table which was easily converted into a ping-pong table by laying a piece of plywood on top. The recreational room was home for a dart board that was also enjoyed by firefighters. A 10-foot-wide bay door was cut into the outside wall of this second-story facility. This feature allowed equipment from the storage area to be lowered outside to the sidewalk.
Vincennes City Hall was located directly adjacent to the fire department headquarters at this time, just to the south toward Vigo Street. The city council chambers sat on the second floor of City Hall on the same floor as the firefighters’ recreational room. Only one door separated these two rooms.
Thomas vividly recalls an incident when the firefighters were engaged in a somewhat animated game of ping-pong when the enthusiasm became elevated a little higher than normal. A city official was assigned the task of entering the VFD rec room and politely requesting a little less exuberance be displayed while the city council was in session.
The years have brought about many updates to the VFD, but one technique that is still most synonymous with the firefighting occupation is the famous fireman’s pole. This shiny, steel icon stood strongly on the north side of the VFD headquarters and was the inverted launching pad for the first responders stationed in Firehouse No. 1.
Some of the differences in the way wars were waged against fires in the early 1970s than today are very evident. The method of communication during a fire is vastly improved from the use of walkie-talkies to modern-day apparatus.
Another distinct advantage today’s firefighters enjoy is the quality of the air mask. Up-to-date technological innovations greatly reduce the amount of smoke and fumes inhaled by firefighters.
A critical factor for the modern firefighter is the invention and evolution of air conditioners. Fewer firefighters in the late ’70s and early ’80s experienced heat exhaustion because, without air conditioning in the firehouses, the temperature difference was not as great from the inside to the outside. It did not require as much of an adjustment to the heat from the fire as if the inside of the firehouse had been air-conditioned.
In addition to the Headquarters building, also known as Station No. 1, three other stations guarded the city of Vincennes, and are still serving the residents today. Station No. 2 has always been located at 11th Street and College Avenue. Station No. 3 was initially located at the intersection of Second Street and Rosedale Avenue, then later moved about three blocks west to the corner of Highland Street and St. Clair Avenue. The newest addition to the firehouse family is Station No. 4 on Old Wheatland Road that came into service in 1976 due to an annexation of the city.
The placement of the brown brick hose houses has been carefully thought out. The unusual high number of railroad tracks and the average of 82 trains lumbering through the heart of Vincennes every 24 hours necessitated that each house protect a designated portion of the city. Headquarters covers the southwestern section of Vincennes, while Hose Company No. 2 concentrates on the northeastern side. Firehouse No. 3 handles the northwestern quadrant, and No. 4 is the closest one to respond to the most-recently annexed area. This strategically-planned concept ensures that at least one unit will not be blocked by train traffic should an emergency call for help come in while a train is either moving through town or sitting still on the tracks.
Two of the main criteria that make any business or organization successful are constant improvement and innovations. Chief Pinkstaff possesses the desire and knowledge to do just that. His objective is the safety of his firefighters.
When he joined the department in 1987, the VFD had a 1967 America LaFrance fire truck and the reserve engine was a 1955 America LaFrance.
Since that time, a 15-year frontline apparatus rotation system has been implemented. Other dramatic changes in fire fighting technology include defibrillators, thermal-imaging cameras, personal alert systems, communication abilities and breathing apparatus.
Defibrillators are used to save the lives of victims suffering from heart-related issues in times of stress. The thermal-imaging cameras allow firefighters to detect hidden hot spots inside walls and in other concealed areas. Even the actual temperature of the flames is displayed on the camera’s screen. The built-in Personal Alarm Safety System integrated directly into the breathing apparatus automatically sounds a beeping distress signal if a firefighter is motionless for 20 seconds.
Pinkstaff said if a response is not received from that signal within 10 seconds after the alarm sounds, “that’s the worst thing we want to hear, because we know we have a firefighter down somewhere within that building.”
A voice amplifier device has recently been added to the right side of each firefighter’s breathing apparatus on the mask. The muffled voice of the firefighter wearing the traditional mask, sealed tightly against the face, is greatly enhanced in both volume and clarity.
Pinkstaff has worked to secure a number of grants that have added to the safety and effectiveness of his program.
The safety of the 38 troops under Chief Pinkstaff’s command is at the top of his priority list. He also expresses his pride in the fact that the city of Vincennes led the way in history by being the very first fire department established in the state of Indiana.
“It’s our duty to make sure that the firefighters coming on after us are better trained and more safety conscious than we are,” he said.
This philosophy reflects his personal statement.
“Take the things I do right and build on them. Take the things I do wrong; don’t repeat them and find a better way, because nobody is perfect,” he said.
While his firefighters are uppermost in his mind in serving Vincennes, the number one priority in Pinkstaff’s personal life is his family.
On the northeastern wall of his office is a poem written by his daughter, Taylor. While undergoing cancer treatments in 2014, 16-year-old Taylor wrote: “God Bless Our Firefighters One and All … Keep them Safe on Every Call!”
“If everything goes well, next month she will be in full remission,” Pinkstaff said.
Taylor’s heartfelt prayer was written specifically out of her devotion to her father and the members of the VFD. But another prayer has been written for the brave men and women everywhere who have chosen firefighting as their life’s ambition. It reads:
THE FIREFIGHTER’S PRAYER
When I am called to duty, God
Wherever flames may rage,
Give me strength to save a life
Whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child
before it is too late
or save an older person
from the horror of that fate!
Enable me to be alert
to hear the weakest shout
and quickly and efficiently
to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling
and to give the best in me;
to guard my neighbor
and protect his property.
And, if according to Your will,
I have to lose my life.
bless with your protecting hand
my children and my wife!