By SHERI GASSAWAY
Fire Fighters Local 73, representing fire fighters, paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers of the St. Louis Fire Department, is celebrating its 100th anniversary as an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) this month.
An event commemorating the milestone is set for Sunday, May 20, at Local 73 “Eugene Floyd” Hall at 4271 Delor St. in St. Louis. Festivities will begin at 1 p.m. and will include barbecue, beer, memorabilia, special guests and live music by BoogieFoot.
“We’re looking forward to continuing the important work our founding fathers began 100 years ago and strengthening our solidarity while preserving, protecting and defending the lives and property of people living in and visiting the great City of St. Louis, said Local 73 President Demetris “Al” Alfred.
The St. Louis Fire Department, a progressive leader in providing the highest quality of emergency services, protects 62 square miles of the city, which has about 319,000 full-time residents and a daytime population of about 1 million.
The IAFF, which is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, was founded on Feb. 28, 1918. Local 73 was organized on April 29 that same year by the union’s first president Joseph F. O’Brien and seven others founders. It was chartered on May 3, 1918 as an affiliate of the IAFF.
At the time, the local represented 845 members. The department, which protected the city’s 700,000 residents, had 11 districts, 52 engine companies, 19 hook and ladder trucks and two water towers, which are no longer used.
100 YEARS LATER
Today, Local 73 represents about 450 active members, plus retirees, said Greg Redmond, Local 73 communications director. The department, which is an open shop, has six districts, 27 engine companies and five hook and ladders.
“About two-thirds of the department’s employees currently are members of Local 73,” Redmond said. “The department’s smaller size today compared to 100 years ago is a direct correlation to the decline in the city’s population.”
LITTLE KNOWN ABOUT UNION’S HISTORY
Because very little is known about the founding of Local 73, Redmond recently met with John “Jack” Koeln, a grandson of Adam E. Koeln, who was one of the first presidents of the union. Koeln has all his grandfather’s mementos from the union and the department.
Jack Koeln was only 7 when his grandfather died and doesn’t remember him talking about the fire department, but he kindly spent a day with Redmond last week going over Koeln’s paperwork from the time and looking at old photos and other memorabilia, including a fire fighters glove from the 1920s.
NOTABLE MOMENTS IN TIME
National leadership: William D. Buck, a relative of former TV personality and philanthropist Dan Buck, joined the fire department in 1930 and almost immediately became active in Local 73.
In 1940, Buck was selected as an IAFF vice president and served in that capacity until 1956, when he was elected secretary-treasurer. He became president of the IAFF in 1957 and served until 1968.
Carson-Union-May-Stern Blaze of 1962: Bill Hill, a Local 73 retiree and 39-year member of the department, said the largest fire he remembers happened on Aug. 20, 1962 – about eight months after he joined the department.
“We got a call around 9 a.m. in the morning about a fire at St. Charles and 12th streets,” he said. “I was thinking at that time in the morning and location, it had to be a car fire. But it was at the Carson-Union-May-Stern building, and about 25 minutes later, it spread to a five-alarm fire and jumped over to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building.”
The blaze consumed the eight-story building which was under demolition, sending five fire fighters to the hospital for heat exhaustion on a day in which the temperature rose to 104 degrees, according to an article in Fire Engineering Magazine.
Forty-four pieces of apparatus responded to the main fire and 21 others to eight fires in neighboring buildings that were touched off by embers from the big blaze, one of which was three blocks away.
It was the most hectic two hours in the history of the department, the article states. Every unit in the department either responded to the fire or relocated at other companies and off-duty men were called from home to fight the fires. Ninety percent of all off-shift personnel responded.
St. Louis Fire Fighters Strike of 1966: Hill said contract negotiations between the city and the union over fair wages and better working conditions broke down in August of 1966 and Local 73 went on strike.
“The president of the local at the time was against the strike and called it a ‘dasterdly deed,’” said Hill, Local 73 secretary-treasurer emeritus. “We were on strike for about four to five hours, and the city renegotiated with us and gave us a decent raise.”
Hill said the federal government threatened to shut down St. Louis Lambert International Airport, which the department was responsible for protecting, because of the strike. “I guess that’s when it dawned on city leaders that they had better negotiate,” he said.
Pay parity with the St. Louis Police Department: Another noteworthy event Hill recalled was the 1970 vote on pay parity with the St. Louis Police Department.
At the time, fire fighters’ salaries, controlled by the city, were tied to other city employees and not advancing commensurate with their putting their lives on the line in the same manner as police officers, whose salaries were determined by the state.
“The police officers got a $1,500-a-year raise, and when we went in to negotiate, we were only offered two percent,” Hill said. “That’s when we started an initiative to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.”
Local 73 members were able to get enough signatures to put the pay parity issue on the ballot and it was approved by city voters by 64.5 percent ensuring that fire fighters were at least paid as much as police officers.
The 100th anniversary celebration of Local 73 on May 20 is open to the public. Reservations are appreciated, but not required. To RSVP, call 314-352-8340.