Champaign Fire Department celebrates 150 years of service

By Senait Gebregiorgis

The Champaign Fire Department celebrated 150 years of service Wednesday. 

On July 8, 1865, the city council signed an agreement to develop the fire department. Today, the department helps protect the public from not only fires but also from any emergency-related calls.

John Barker, deputy chief of operations, has been with the fire department for 25 years. Barker acknowledged that technology has played a vital role in helping improve the department’s fire fighting.

“Years ago, they didn’t have near the technology, the type of equipment that we have,” Barker said. “And so they were putting fire out with buckets of water when they first started – on muddy streets, and, you know, it was just a lot different than today. We have so many advantages available to us to be able to put fires out and deal with these emergencies, and they did it back then just like we’re doing it now.”

Frames of black and white pictures hang on the wall next to Barker’s office desk. The pictures show Champaign’s original firefighters sitting atop horses and wearing hats, instead of driving fire trucks and wearing helmets.

“I have an appreciation for where we came from,” Barker said. “So I look back, and I see the equipment and the guys, and the firefighters that were back then – the struggles they went through. I’ve read about them, and I try to embrace that a little bit, to keep that in my mind, and it creates a lot of pride for me.”

Lt. John Hocking has been with the Champaign Fire Department for 23 years. He said one of its greatest accomplishments through 150 years of service has been providing fire prevention programs for the public.

“When they think about how we do as a fire department, they see us at a fire and how well we put that fire out and did we save somebody,” Hocking said. “We’ve probably saved many more lives in our prevention stuff than we have just fighting the fires. There’s just no good way to measure how many fires didn’t happen at all because there was education out there.”

Probationary firefighter Matthew Fisher, who joined the team just six months ago, said the 150th anniversary is a reminder of how much of a commitment the 24-hour job is, and yet a passion he and the team share.

“It was something that always was in the back of my head—I just wanted to help people,” Fisher said. “I wanted to be someone that people could come to and rely on, and the fire services are all about that. It’s all about serving selflessly for the community, and I’m very happy to do that in a town I grew up in and around.”

Though a lot of changes have been made over the years to help improve the services, Hocking said there are still some things that have not changed.

“Firefighting is built on traditions and what we do,” he said. “But it’s that 150 years of 24/7 – you know, you call the fire department, (and) we come, every time.”

The Champaign Fire Department will hold a celebration for its 150th anniversary on Sunday, July 19, with a parade open to the public starting at noon. The parade will begin at Illinois Fire Service Institute and will continue to downtown Champaign.