The Niles Fire Department is celebrating its centennial anniversary this month, but despite plenty of changes in firefighting technology in the course of 100 years, its mission has remained the same.
Every third day, the men—and now women— of the department clock in to work a full 24-hour shift. They sometimes miss birthdays, recitals and holidays to be there for the Village of Niles. That’s part of the job, firefighters say. And that’s how it has been since a group of volunteer firemen decided to charter the department in 1912.
In the early days before sprinkler systems and smoke detectors, there used to be more fire alarm calls. The “old timers” used to face burning buildings with hand pumps, hand extinguishers, picks, axes and “Blue Boy,” which was the first pump owned by the department.
“When we came up we didn’t have self-contained masks, face masks, none of that stuff,” said former Niles firefighter Shel Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen was on the job for 37 years and said when he first started, he used ride on the back of the rig to the scene, no matter how cold it was outside.
“Every time the alarm would come in, you’d get that little surge and your heart pumps a little faster,” Mikkelsen said. “I liked the fire fighting aspect of it. Now it’s more of an ambulance service.”
Now, all fire fighters are equipped with protective gear that can withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. But even with these improvements, infrared cameras and smarter training tools, firefighting continues to be a dangerous job.
Today the majority of calls to the department require ambulances and every Niles firefighter is also a certified paramedic. More than 50 years ago, the department became one of the first in the nation to offer free ambulance services to the community, something its retired firefighters are still proud of.
“Niles has been doing ambulance service since 1947,” former Chief Harry Kinowski said. Kinowski retired after 48 years of service to the village and was “Fireman of the Year” in 1965. “We were doing it with what we called a bread truck. It was a panel truck that was used for everything but surgery.”
To accommodate a growing community, the department expanded to include a second fire station in 1969 at Jarvis Avenue. The department has also grown to include two female firefighters in its family.
“The Niles Fire Department was one of the first professional departments organized in this area, where most of the others were basically volunteer fire departments,” said retired firefighter Carl Fox. “The fact that the Niles Fire Department is celebrating 100 years is very gratifying in that we achieved what we did.”
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