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Home : News : News
NEWS | June 3, 2024

Joint Base San Antonio fire departments, firefighters have a long history

By Vincent Hodge 502nd Air Base Wing and JBSA Historian

Since the Civil War, firefighters have supported the United States military, extinguishing fires and saving lives, structures, and equipment throughout the ages.

However, it was not until World War I that brought about the first organized fire department in the military. The Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, has documented the structure under the Quartermaster Corps, which consisted of two types of military firefighting companies that protected each installation during the war.

Fire truck and hose companies were formed at Army and National Guard cantonments and other important facilities. The Soldiers of these companies had only one duty, to man the fire stations and fire apparatuses at these garrisons.

Guard and fire companies were also established at smaller Army installations, depots and storage areas which provided both fire protection and security at facilities. Fire trucks and hose companies comprised three officers and 75 enlisted men.

In 1917, Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, was also equipped with fire units and firefighters. On Aug. 20, 1917, Kelly Field launched its first fire department unit, consisting of one hand-drawn 50-gallon chemical wagon, pulled by four men.

This was located in a little tent in the back of the officers’ mess in the training brigade, on Kelly No. 1. Later, several other little companies and pieces of fire equipment were also added to the system of vehicles, but it was not until June 1918 that the department possessed enough modern chemical trucks and up-to-date fire engines, to warrant the name of a strictly modern department.  

The Kelly Fire Department was one of the most important organizations at Kelly Field. The department’s track record, efficiency, organization and personnel had no record of fires that could not be put out.

The program and systems were so effective that the fire chiefs of different cities in Texas made a special trip to the Flying Department from San Antonio to inspect it. The personnel of the department had also been through the fire school of San Antonio.

The department answered many alarms, but the largest fire at the time was downtown Kelly Field, when several large businesses were burned. The San Antonio Fire Department also answered this alarm, but the Kelly Field Department rendered the most valuable service, being on the ground first.

Later, another early fire station was constructed at Randolph Field in the 1930s, which was built for only $14,904, paving the way for future stations to be established throughout the San Antonio military community. Although Duncan and Kelly Fields housed their firefighters, Lackland would also build its first two fire stations in 1941.

In 1949, Lackland would experience the first of many Installation fires that would test the courage and resolve of its firefighters.

On one Sunday afternoon, the alarm sounded at the Lackland fire station for a raging inferno at the Officers’ Club, with estimated damages of almost $200,000. Once a beautiful building and one of the most modern officers’ clubs in the country, the Lackland Officers Club was reduced to a pile of charred ruins.

Throughout the 1950s, the basic firefighting and advanced training courses were revised to meet modern needs. Special structural training facilities were introduced to teach structural firefighting techniques in a realistic environment.

Training films about aircraft firefighting and rescue techniques were also completed and comprehensive handbooks and chart series were developed that supported the effectiveness of firefighting practices.

In 1971, Lackland’s firefighters would again be called into action to confront another major structure fire; this time inside of a 20-year-old school building known as “Sebille Hall.”

One early Sunday morning, a fire destroyed the upper floor of Sebille Hall, located in the southwest portion of Lackland Air Force Base. Sebille Hall housed the offices and classrooms of technical recruiters and the Instructor Training Branch, as well as sound recording equipment.

However, as the 21st century arrived, fire chiefs and civil engineers met and evaluated various staffing options. After discussions, the fire chiefs agreed to reduce the number of military and civilian firefighters by 901 positions or 14 percent.

A new firefighting concept of operations was published in June 2007. This plan transitioned Air Force firefighting capabilities from risk avoidance to risk management.

Under this plan, firefighters emphasized, “fire prevention, early intervention at fires, cross-manning of the New Century 571 vehicles, while continuing to leverage technology. This redefined capability enabled the Air Force to reduce Fire Emergency Services by 901 authorizations across the service. A total of 366 firefighters remained busy despite the reductions.

Although cutbacks occurred it did not decrease the number of fires, nor did it restrict the quality and resilience of the Firefighters and their mission.

A great example of this occurred on June 1, 2021, at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston’s Staff Post housing, when a massive blaze consumed a garage building. Deploying post firefighters along with the city of San Antonio and Alamo Heights Fire Departments, they extinguished the fire with zero casualties.

On April 9, 2022, a massive brush fire in the demolition range area at JBSA-Camp Bullis spanned more than 2,800 acres and affected more than 150 residents who were evacuated. The fire involved not only local fire departments but JBSA firefighters.

As military fire departments and firefighters evolve, the JBSA community continues to depend on the world-class firefighting, technical rescue, emergency medical services, hazardous materials response, fire inspections, and public fire and life safety education provided by JBSA’s finest, while protecting more than 85,000 service members, civilians’ contractors, and their families throughout the year.