Not your ancestor’s bucket brigade

Plymouth Fire Department adjusts to new roles, responsibilities as they celebrate 150 years
by Dave Cary
Review Correspondent

DENIS FELLOWS HAS served as chief of the Plymouth Fire Department since 2015. The department will be celebrating their 150th anniversary Sunday with a parade and a party at the Sheboygan County Fairgrounds. — Review photo by Emmitt B. Feldner DENIS FELLOWS HAS served as chief of the Plymouth Fire Department since 2015. The department will be celebrating their 150th anniversary Sunday with a parade and a party at the Sheboygan County Fairgrounds. — Review photo by Emmitt B. Feldner PLYMOUTH - As the observance of the Plymouth Fire Department’s 150-year history takes place this weekend, it’s worth taking a look not so much at what the department has been, but at what it is today.

Of course it is partly an array of sophisticated equipment. But it is also a complex blend of talent, study, systems learning and development, donated time, physical drill and practice, practice, practice coupled with perhaps the only thing that was present at year one as much as at year 150: a strong dose of public-spirited dedication that knits it all together and makes it all go.

In that 150 years, the department’s mission has expanded.

“Pretty much when something happens people are likely to call the fire department,” said Plymouth Fire Chief Denis Fellows. “Fire suppression, of course. But we also go for lockouts - people locked out of their houses. We do medical transport, if need be. False alarms; they are mostly accidental - backpacks sometimes snag an alarm pull, and there have been false alarms set off by dust and alarm system failures as well. And there is the occasional malicious one; but in almost all cases we send someone to check things out.”

In recent years fire departments across the country have taken on much more than fighting fires. Their emphasis has expanded from just putting out fires to other things, largely Emergency Medical Service (EMS) work. PFD answered 409 calls last year, and 60 percent of these were primarily Emergency Medical Service calls, not fire calls.

“It gets pretty involved with EMS,” Fellows said. “Our Dive Team involves both police and fire personnel. We work together and we have the two dive boats at the town station. Usually when we go to a dive call our main responsibility is the workers (EMS personnel), not the victims - there’s Orange Cross and the city fire ambulance for that.

“We also support the county Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) team and do rehab (post-event cleanup) work at fires ... take care of the people, the divers, the hazmat technicians, as far as rehab and checking them over, ” Fellows said. The Plymouth department also has an Ice Rescue team.

• • •

All of this involves significant training - not just in operating equipment, but in how fires are fought, how various emergencies and types of incidents are handled.

For all volunteers, this means Firefighter 1 training, which, Fellows said, was the absolute minimum required for membership. “Any training after that is up to them.”

There are several other courses available, he added - Firefighter 2, Fire Officer 1 and 2, Certified Fire Instructor 1 and 2, as well as driver-operator, aerial operator, pumping and many other certifications. EMT training is a separate matter. This course work is conducted through Lakeshore Technical College.

Training never stops, being a main component of the department’s regular Monday meetings.

An important part of this training involves what could be called the department’s command structure in the field.

Since all but one of the 42 Plymouth Fire Department members have full-time jobs, availability of volunteers for calls varies with the time of day. As a result, Fellows has two assistant chiefs and six captains below him on the organizational chart.

Because of work schedules, not all members - including assistant chiefs and captains - may be able to answer or arrive at a call on time. Fellows said the answer is cross training.

In the fire vehicles, assignments - fire suppression, ventilation, pumping, entry, determining whether a building is occupied or not, dealing with onlookers, etc. - are hierarchically pegged to seats in transport vehicles. If a seat is vacant on leaving the station, someone else will fill it and if need be, take temporary command on arrival at the scene. This temporary command will be ceded to someone higher up the organizational chart and so on until the highest-ranking one arrives. This system settles questions of who should do what upon arriving on scene, saving time.

• • •

Standard turnout gear for all firefighters, Fellows said, is a helmet, bunker pants, boots, coat and breathing apparatus.

“Everyone at a fire scene has to have the breathing apparatus,” he said.

“We do get a physical every couple years. Some firefighters will be exempted from going into fires and will be assigned other things that need doing outside.”

“Most of our firefighters have two sets of gear,” Fellows said. “After a fire or call, we clean up and have to shower. These days, with all the plastics, we have a big concern with contaminants that may be caused by the fire. We carry meters that will detect some chemicals and we make sure everyone is cleaned off before going home. Clean our equipment, too. We don’t want to be bringing contaminants back to the station or especially to our homes. Cancer is a big concern - after all, we’re exposed to it more than almost anyone.”

• • •

The town of Plymouth and city of Plymouth share a single fire department, Fellows said. Capital and operational expenses are split on a two-for-one basis, city to town, and both fire stations are utilized. Firefighters are paid an hourly wage while on calls by the government where the fire is located.

The department has 42 members, with Fellows the only fulltime employee. The department also maintains an EMS division which has another two dozen or so members.

As chief, Fellows attends City Council and city Plan Commission meetings, as well as Plymouth Town Board meetings.

He also does the fire component of building permit inspections with the city building inspector and has help with fire inspections.

Fellows accepted the position as chief three years ago after 42 years with Piggly Wiggly. He was a fireman for that same period, as well as a charter (30-year) member of the Plymouth Ambulance Service, which merged with Orange Cross a few years ago.

• • •

“We’re always looking for more volunteer firefighters,” Fel- lows said. “But the culture for volunteering isn’t the same as it was years ago. Fewer people want to join organizations. We do get a few younger people but we have to do a better job of getting information to them. Fire departments all across the country are having the same problem.”

So before next Sunday’s parade of shiny fire equipment passes by, please give a thought to the effort the folks driving and occupying it give for little pay. They are just as worthy as anyone of being thanked for their service.

And just perhaps give a thought to joining them.


Plymouth Fire Department 150th anniversary Sunday, August 12

11 a.m. - Parade from Fire Station to fairgrounds
12 noon to 5 p.m. - Free Kids Entertainment at fairgrounds
(giant inflatables, pony rides, petting zoo, fire trucks, Flight
for Life helicopter)
1 p.m. to 5 p.m. - Live music on two stages with The Mantz Brothers (country) and II Cool (50s and 60s)
12 noon to 5 p.m. - Food and beverages

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