By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 02, 2023 at 12:01 PM

Back in January, I posted about a collaboration between the Milwaukee and Tosa Fire Departments that is a great example of municipalities working together to maximize resources.

That story – about a deal that allowed MFD to reopen a long-closed firehouse and lend another station to Tosa FD – contained this paragraph:

“The station – remodeled in 1951 – had been in continuous operation from 1905 until 2017, as quarters for Engine 28 and, across the decades, others, like the Ash Truck (which collected coal ash from firehouse furnaces around the city), Squad 4, Battalion 5, Engines 9 and 41 (briefly), Civil Defense 4 and the awesomely named Sesame Street Unit, from 1994 to ‘96.”

Sesame Street Unit?!

I had to know more.

So, I reached out to retired Deputy Chief Jim Ley, who is active in the Milwaukee Fire Historical Society and author of the the encyclopedic book, “10-19 Return to Quarters: A History of Milwaukee’s Fire Stations.”

Ley told me that the Sesame Street Unit was “a voluntary program where volunteers were trained to present a fire safety program using characters from Sesame Street.”

For many years, the Sesame Street Fire Safety Program has worked with schools and local fire departments to help educate pre-schoolers – ages 5 and under – on fire prevention and safety.

The program is a partnership between U.S. Fire Administration and Sesame Workshop.

“If you’ve ever visited a preschool classroom to discuss fire safety, or have met with older toddlers during community outreach activities, you know they can be a tough crowd to reach,” reads the program website.

“The program shows educators how to empower children ages 3-5 with essential fire safety information and skills that can make a big difference in case of an emergency.”

The program – available to schools, day care providers and fire departments in English and Spanish – “includes easy-to-use lessons, games and activities to help reinforce important fire safety messages and show children what to do if there’s a fire and ways to prevent fires from starting.

“And children’s lovable, furry Sesame Street friends will help engage children each step of the way!”

In Milwaukee, the program – which appears to have been in operation from at least the 1980s until the early 2000s (it’s hard to tell as information has proved scarce) – even had its own vehicles.

“The program was geared toward preschoolers and kindergarteners,” affirms Ley. “I think when a program was scheduled, three on-duty members would be released to put on the program.

“Eventually the program had its own vehicle to store and transport the puppets and equipment. There were three or four vehicles used (over the years).”

Fortunately Ley was able to find a photo of one of them, a former MED unit dubbed SS-1, and the Milwaukee Fire Historical Society & Fire Museum shared a photo of the first iteration, a converted van.

First version
The first Sesame Street Unit vehicle. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Fire Historical Society & Fire Museum)

According to the MFHS, "There also was a Sesame Street 2, an old ambulance from West Milwaukee Fire Dept."

For a time the program was much in demand, it seems. Ley says he found an April 1986 reference to a search for additional volunteers to staff the program, which was garnering a lot of interest.

These days, the Survive Alive House, which has been active for many years, is used for fire safety and prevention education among children in the Milwaukee area.

There are also resources on fire education for children on the MFD website.

A Junior Fire Institute offers a program aimed at high school students and recent graduates.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.