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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Milwaukee Fire Education Center and Museum has some serious motorized "bling."

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The museum is located in a 1927 bungalow firehouse on the South Side.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Displays include equipment like this old street corner alarm box.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

There's also a full set of run cards that made sense of the alarms for fire companies.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Much of the building has been restored to its 1927 state, including the kitchen stove.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The back phone allowed firefighters to call home during shifts.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The hose tower was for drying out cotton hoses after a run.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Milwaukee's first Cadillac ambulance.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

These Dictabelt ribbons are packed with MFD history.

Burning passion fuels Fire Education Center and Museum mission


Inside one of the five bungalow style firehouses built in the 1920s by Milwaukee architect Charles Malig, there is a quiet treasure.

The Milwaukee Fire Education Center and Museum, 1615 W. Oklahoma Ave., isn't exactly a secret, but considering the passion for the history of firefighting that burns in the folks that maintain and grow it, it almost feels like it.

To the naked eye, the former firehouse, built in 1927, is a repository for old vehicles, a brass fireman's pole, call boxes and other memorabilia. But the resources housed in the museum go much deeper.

There are all kinds of records stored in filing cabinets. There is a box of old run cards – which told firehouses which units were expected to respond to blazes – for the entire city. And that's just the start.

"The Milwaukee Fire Historical Society has been in existence since 1981," says retired deputy chief Warren Skonieczny, "and this was an active station until '95. Those folks moved a few blocks down the street here, and then this was vacated for a few years.

"We were able to get this one, which we are very fortunate to have," adds Skonieczny, who everyone calls "Ski."

The two-story station, with its gabled roof and colonnaded porch, has been set up inside to appear as it did when it went into service, says Skonieczny, pointing out the floor tile, the copious woodwork, the lockers, the kitchen outfitted in 1927 style.

The station belongs to the Milwaukee Fire Department, with which the historical society and museum enjoys a fruitful and amicable relationship. That's not true everywhere says Skonieczny.

"The Chicago Fire Department and the Chicago Fire Museum, they're miles apart. We are a finger of the Milwaukee Fire Department. The Fire Department owns the building ... the city actually owns it. So, they have recognized that this is a real, viable entity, so they want to preserve it. In 2001, this was designated as a historical landmark. This, along with two other bungalow firehouses."

The others are located on Hawley Road, just south of Bluemound; on 47th and Center Streets; on 26th and Capitol Drive; and on 30th and Locust Streets.

Inside the main entrance, there is a room with the call box and other equipment, including a fire alarm telegraph system. To the left is the captain's office and bunk. Straight back is the dormitory, which housed 10 firemen, including two officers and two drivers.

In the back is the kitchen, and the stairs to a room above, where Randy Leach, a retired lieutenant who serves as the treasurer of the historical society, has cabinets stuffed with photographs and papers and a large table covered in ribbons.

"This is one of the big projects that we're working on," Leach says, looking at the mountain of history – and labor-intensive work – splayed before us. "We have, an old Dictabelt machine? There was a plastic belt inside, that was almost like a belt sander belt, and it records 15 minutes at a time. Well, when we got into the modern era, after the war, that was when those were developed, they started saving and recording incoming calls and the communication between the dispatchers and the chiefs and all that sort of stuff."

Leach says the society has belts from 1967 to 1985 (and another 10 years after that of reel to reel tapes) that contain any communication between dispatchers and chiefs.

"So when a chief would call and go, 'Dispatcher, give me a second alarm,' and they always give reports, 'We're showing fires on three floors,' you know. That's what's on there."

The belts also contain communication between dispatchers. The result is that the belts (and the tapes) are packed full of details about and descriptions of fires in Milwaukee across decades.

"We found a Dictabelt on eBay and we have a guy that's converting it," says Leach, who sounds excited by the prospect of preserving the content of the belts and daunted by the work it will require.

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