When duty called, they were there
For 50 years of marriage, Hazel Woodgate’s furniture has been in the exact same spot.
In the 1950s, she didn’t dare move it, for in the middle of the night, the whistle could blow and Mel would have to run through the house getting dressed.
And dressing up in fire gear is enough of a challenge on the move without having to contend with furniture in the way.
Now that Mel lost his sight, it doesn’t make sense to move it, she said. In the days of the Warren Engine Company, the sound of that whistle sent many Carson City men out doors held open by their wives, sons and daughters, and into the streets, racing to reach the “house” on Curry and Musser streets to get the equipment. There were three men paid to staff the station, care for the equipment and send out the emergency calls. The whistle blasted a different number of times for each area of town so firefighters know where they were heading, said Woodgate, who was WECO president from 1952 to 1962.
“You’d better be around when that whistle blew, or you’d get chastised,” he said. “We were the only thing that saved life and limb around here for years.”
Unlike now, there was “never a question if someone in Warren Engine Company could have the time off” to go fight a fire, said Les Groth, a past WECO chief and the city’s first paid chief. Groth joined the organization in 1946.
“I was working at Meyer’s Grocery Store when the owners were members,” he said. “At times a fire was going, they’d take off running, and I’d have the store to myself. George Meyers and Lad Furlong were inspirations because of their enthusiasm. They felt it was the most important thing in the world to do their part for the city.
“We felt we did the best job we knew how to do.”
Many current and past WECO members grew up to the sound of the Warren Engine Company whistle blaring its emergency message and they dreamed of a day when they could join.
“I grew up on WECO engine calls,” said Don Blanchard, a 23-year member. “Now, when you say Warren Engine Company, people don’t know what it is. When I joined, people still knew what it was.”
Warren Engine Company, once the premier volunteer and social organization, these days is desperate for volunteers able to make emergency calls. But in the old days, even 15 years ago, potential volunteer firefighters had to be invited by a volunteer to join.
Paul Webster, WECO vice-president, said when he joined Warren Engine Company in 1972 it was “considered the best volunteer fire department around.”
“It was an honor to get into it,” he said.
Like dozens of past WECO members Carson City Firefighter Jim Quilici spent three years as a chaser, someone who haunts the fire department learning the ropes, tying to become a WECO member before he was accepted.
“The old guys were stuck on the tradition of making a guy do his time. You had to pay your dues,” Quilici said. “You had to hang out at the fire department, sit the steps and participate in training until they though you were good enough.”
Volunteers were used heavily through Groth’s 14-year tenure as fire chief, and even after that, volunteers say. Now, they have a variety of theories on why the once, most popular organization in town isn’t as well-known as it once was.
The older WECO members tend to think the intensive training is driving volunteers from the organization.
“It’s fallen down, basically because of the massive training and requirements,” Webster said. “Plus, I think the kids aren’t as dedicated anymore. The spirit’s not there.
“I hate to see the outfit die.”
Current active members attribute low volunteer turnout to a lack of commitment.
“People have great expectations, but when it comes right down to it, they have a hard time with commitment,” said Mitch Hammond, a two-year member. “Now days, bosses have a hard time letting anyone go.
“If someone wants to do something for their community, it’s a great thing to look into. But the commitment is one thing they have to think about. If you’re going to do it, be a part of it when it’s done. Don’t take the training and walk away.”
The key to the company’s survival is rekindling people’s interest in volunteer firefighting, said Pete Baker, first assistant chief.
“We’re still here, and we’re here to help,” he said.
Warren Engine Company fast facts:
Organized: June 17, 1863
Named after: Revolutionary War hero General Warren who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Early competition: Curry Engine Company No. 2 and the Swift Company No. 3.
First call: Aug. 12, 1863, Indian Queen Hotel Fire
Motto: ‘Where duty calls, there you’ll find us.’