CHICAGO (CBS) — African American firefighters played a key role in developing a staple of the firehouse: the sliding pole.
In honor of Black History Month, CBS 2’s Derrick Young spoke with a retired fire chief turned author.
Dekalb Walcott served on the Chicago Fire Department for more than 30 years, retiring as a battalion chief in 2009. He’s now a historian at the Chicago African American Firefighters Museum.
“Blacks came on the Fire Department December 21st, 1872. They were established by the mayor, Joseph Medill,” Walcott said.
His book, “Black Heroes of Fire,” tells the story of Engine Company 21, Chicago’s first African-American engine company.
They didn’t make much money, they worked every day and they helped create the now iconic firehouse pole. Walcott said it was an ingenious invention.
“The members of this company practiced drilling, sliding the pole, making fast runouts. Those fast runouts made them nationally known. Why? Because they beat everybody else into their fires,” Walcott said.
By 1878, Chicago installed sliding poles throughout the city’s firehouses to increase fire response times.
Lorna Bradley’s uncle was Hodd Bond, a firefighter who joined Engine 21 after serving in World War I. Bond died in the line of duty in 1936 while responding to what turned out to be a false alarm. His fire wagon crashed into another fire vehicle at 35th and Cottage Grove and he later died at the hospital.
“This was the headline here: ‘Joker Sends Fireman To His Death,’” Bradley said.
Bradley, a retired teacher, used her uncle’s tale as a teachable moment about false alarms.
“I would say this is the fire alarm, don’t touch this and then I’d tell my stories. Some of them would sit there and cry. You just had to impress upon them this is something you should never never do, because you could cause the death of a fireman,” she said.
In addition to fighting fires, members of Engine 21 also successfully fought the racist belief of many Chicagoans that they weren’t qualified to put out fires.
“Most of black firefighters’ history was word of mouth. Nothing was written down. So I made it a task at that particular time to record that data, and to share that,” Walcott said.
The iconic sliding pole started out as wood, but that design was discontinued because of splinters, In 1880, Boston patented the brass fire pole.