Imagine the City of Tempe more than 100 years ago: The skies over the area were quiet, yet to be traversed by planes taking off and landing to the west. Arizona State University was not a sprawling campus; rather, its roots were being laid as the “Normal School of Arizona.” The town’s population had just surpassed 1,000. As sleepy as this may sound to us now, Tempe in 1901 was booming – becoming a hub for business and shipping for the surrounding agricultural areas. And it wasn’t long before its citizens recognized their need for fire protection and organized a bucket brigade creating the town’s first, yet unofficial, fire department.
The process of improving the bucket brigade began immediately with the purchase of two hose carts, a 40-foot extension ladder, axes, spanner wrenches and 600 feet of hose. With all the excitement and effort of creating the city’s state-of-the-art bucket brigade, it’s no surprise the organization attracted the city’s strongest and energetic young men. And in 1903, the Tempe Fire Department was officially created when the City Council passed Ordinance Number 67.
Just three years later, the fire department had become an integral part of the city. A fire code was established and the city was divided into six fire districts, laying the groundwork for code and call areas still used today.
Now fast forward to the mid-1960s. The Tempe Fire Department had 27 members. On July 27, 1966, 25 of those members joined the city’s first chapter of the International Association of Firefighters AFL-CIO, Tempe Firefighters Local 1643. In 1967, fire fighters from across the state convened in Tempe for the first-ever meeting of the newly formed Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona. At that convention, the Tempe chapter’s first president, firefighter Walt Torgerson, was nominated to become the first president of the PFFA. Torgerson held that position until 1969.
In 1980, tragedy struck the firefighters of Tempe: 27-year-old Edward Gaicki, a six-year member of the TFD, was killed when a roof collapsed on him and eight other firefighters during a massive, four-alarm blaze inside the Jumbo Bakery and Deli along Apache Boulevard.
Gaicki, trained as a paramedic, had been nominated for the Tempe Jaycees’ Annual Outstanding Young Firefighter of the Year Award just five days before his death. A former All-State football player at McClintock High School, where he graduated in 1970, Ed was also elected president of the senior class.
Upon gradation, Ed accepted an appointment into the Air Force Academy. However, the lure of being a fireman for the City of Tempe was too appealing.
Gaicki, president of the Tempe local at the time of his death, was survived by his Debbie, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Gaicki, his sister Vicky and his brother Daniel.
Today, Gaicki Park, a two-acre memorial to Ed’s sacrifice stands at the corner of Cornell and McClintock drives.
On June 28, 1993, the City of Tempe, always a home to diversity in employment, hired Gretchen Chalmers as the department’s first female firefighter. Gretchen spent the first five years of her career working on Engine 271. In 1999, shortly after the birth of her first daughter, Gretchen was promoted to engineer. That same year, Gretchen attended paramedic school, becoming a certified paramedic in October 1999. Today, with two children and in her 18th year as a Tempe firefighter, Gretchen works on Engine 273 in South Tempe.
“I still absolutely love coming to work,” Gretchen, now also the mother of a boy, says. “I couldn’t how my life would be if I wasn’t a firefighter. I’m very fortunate!”
Today, the Tempe Fire Department has reached maturity and a level of service that few agencies in Arizona can match. In 2010, the department’s 182 employees (including 153 sworn firefighters) handled nearly 20,000 emergency calls for service, including more than 2,000 fire calls and more than 16,000 emergency medical calls. The value of property saved by Tempe Firefighters in 2012?
Nearly $100 million.
TFD firefighters gave more than 180 public safety presentations in 2010, installed 84 smoke alarms, conducted 79 water safety classes and trained 408 community members in CPR/First Aid.
“Every one of the Tempe Firefighters does more than simply put out blazes,” said local President Don Jongewaard. “We’re in the streets of Tempe every day doing our best to make a difference, whether it’s protecting life or protecting property. We’re glad to have the chance to serve like this.”