No Cause for Alarm: Fire Museum Opens

Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:15pm

A decade ago, Walter Gold had an idea. The rescue squad and fire department volunteer of 53 years wanted to show Washingtonians the vast history of their city’s heroes. He wanted to build a firehouse museum.

In January, Gold’s plan solidified into Washington, D.C.’s largest firefighter museum. Situated in Engine Co. 3’s third-floor loft at 439 New Jersey Ave. NW, the D.C. Fire & EMS Museum features hundreds of firefighting items dating back to the 1700s. Stack upon stack of hand-written fire department logs and records — inscribed long before the computer age — fill bookshelves. Old newspaper clippings dating back to 1851 highlight the firefighters who saved people and buildings from vicious flames.

The collection even includes a handmade fire bucket once owned by Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Viewers can check out old dispatching equipment and oxygen tanks and masks. On the wall hangs a circular life net, a device formerly used to break the fall of those jumping out of windows to escape burning buildings.

There are, of course, the traditional red and yellow firefighter hats, long black fireproof coats and bulky boots worn by the rescue teams. Trophies and awards decorate the walls, tributes to the men and women who saved many lives.

“There’s a story behind everything in here,” said Gold, now the executive director of the museum — and he seems to know all of them.

Pointing to a series of red street-corner fireboxes, he explained the inefficient method used to alert fire departments before telephones offered 911 instructions. He said fireboxes stood on all main roads until the 1970s, and when a fire broke out, residents ran to the nearest firebox — which looked something like a birdhouse — and pulled the levers to send electronic impulses to fire-alert receptors. Receptors then had to decode the electronic signals, match the impulse numbers with specific locations and call the fire departments closest to the identified areas. “Not exactly time-efficient,” he joked.

The Friendship Fire Association, a voluntary group of firefighters who serve the D.C. fire and Emergency Medical Services departments, collected the museum’s items. Gold, also an FFA member, said most artifacts were donated or found in old firehouse storage compartments. Although some come from across the country, each badge, picture or fireproof coat was used in a D.C. department.

Most of the items are on display for the first time. A few were transferred from a smaller, less popular version of the D.C. Fire & EMS Museum that closed. The 400-square-foot museum located at a different firehouse in upper Northwest “had maybe 50 people visit a year,” he said.

Like the objects in the museum, the newly renovated 4,000-square-foot space in the 94-year-old building also has historic roots. Built in 1916, the building’s third floor served as a hayloft for the fire department’s horses, which pulled the fire carriages. The station closed in the 1990s for financial reasons, but Gold said the location was reopened in 2000 to serve the northwest side of Capitol Hill.

The loft, however, was never used or renovated. “There were windows broken, dead birds on the ground, lead paint peeling and asbestos,” he said.

Seeking to renovate the space, Gold applied for a $101,000 grant and officially started building the museum when his proposal received the go-ahead in late 2001.

Since then, the six-year retiree has been working 40-hour weeks voluntarily to open the museum. He has spoken with artifact donors, sought and collected other historical fire objects, and worked with volunteers to put the final touches on the space.

“This has become a second career for me,” he said, admitting the project’s completion has sparked a note of personal satisfaction. “But everything in here is a labor of love.”

Beyond all the artifacts donated, most of the work was paid for or completed voluntarily. For example, the light fixtures, woodwork on the walls and the electrical wiring were voluntarily installed and covered. The $25,000 air-conditioning system was entirely donated.

Gold said that since so many people have given time and expertise to the project, he’s able to run the entire museum operation on a $10,000 annual grant budget and with support of major donors such as Giant Food, Pepco and PNC Bank.

He’s expecting the museum to grow, and at this point, the only objects he’s turning away are duplicates.

The D.C. Fire & EMS Museum is open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Special tours are offered for House and Senate Members and staff. To schedule tours, call 202-673-1709.