Conway Fire Department to celebrate 100th anniversary

By Tammy Keith Published April 5, 2012 at 3:24 a.m.
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— Before the Conway Fire Department was formed by resolution 100 years ago on April 11, 1912, word of a fire was spread by gunshot to volunteers.

Residents “went outside and shot their guns off in the air to alert each other,” Fire Chief Bart Castleberry said.

And, all firefighters in those days did was fight fires.

It’s a different story a century later. Today, alarms are received through the 911 dispatch center, the majority of the runs are medical calls, and the department boasts a bomb squad and Special Operations Rescue Team (SORT).

Firefighters are technologically savvy anduse equipment firefighters 100 years ago couldn’t have imagined.

Castleberry, who joined the department 31 years ago, said he’s seen his share of changes.

“People always ask me, ‘What was it like when you had to feed the horses?” Castleberry said with a laugh.

“We used to go in with short-sleeve fire department uniforms and polyester pants. Now they have flame-resistant station wear and outerwear and air packs.

“They’re smarter firemen, well-trained and well-versed, and they work at keeping themselves safe.”

The number of fire runs has exploded through the years.

“I re m e mb e r t h e ye ar we made 365 runs, and we thought, wow, that was one run a day,” Castleberry said.

Now, an average of 25 fire runs a day are made, and the majority of those are medical runs.

The Conway Fire Department was the first in the state, Castleberry said, to put automatic external defibrillators on its trucks.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, Castleberr y said: “The people are who we serve; the public is who we work for; that’s our boss.”

To help commemorate the department’s 100th anniversary, the public is invited to a celebration from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 14 in downtownConway, featuring entertainment, games for children and adults, food and displays.

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Winter, who has guided the 100-year-anniversary committee, said an open house of Central Fire Station, 1401 Caldwell Ave., will begin at 10 a.m.

Open houses at the other six stations in Conway have been held leading up to the event.

“The firefighters take a lot of pride in their own station; that’s their home,” Winter said. “That’s what the fire station is; it’s part of a community and part of a neighborhood.”

Winter, an almost 17-year veteran of the department, said that when he was hired, there were 35 firefighters. Today there are 105.

“The Fire Department is the cornerstone of the community. We’re a safe haven for the citizens,” he said.

Shortly before 11 a.m., firefighters, led by the Conway Firefighters Pipes and Drums, will march to Simon Park on Front Street. An honor guard will post the colors and have brief guest speakers to kick off the event.

While entertainment is going on in Simon Park, activities will be under way on Parkway, which will be clos ed between Oak and Main streets.

Entertainment on the Kris Allen Stage will include the Blackbird Academy of Arts, the Quitman First Baptist Church sign-language team, firefighter Kent Schreiber and firefighter Mark McEntire’s group, theCaney Creek Band. The final act, Yesteryear, will begin at 1:45.

A piece of World Trade Center steel the department received last year will be on display on Parkway Street. Castleberry said the plan is to create a memorial with the piece.

“It’s part of American history. It’s part of the American psyche, and we’d like to share that, too,” he said.

Commemorative T-shirts will be for sale for $10 each at the Central Fire Station, and proceeds will go to the memorial project. The department held a contest for the design, which was created byNicole Moix, a sophomore at St. Joseph High School.

Fire equipment and photos will also be on display at the event.

Winter said activities for children will include bounce houses and a Crawl, Drag and Squirt event.

A bucket-brigade contest is planned, but Winter said he’d like to see more corporate teams participate.

He said he is hoping for good weather, but the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds is the inclement-weather location.

Castleberry said the event is a chance for the public to meet firefighters in anonemergency setting.

“We meet a lot of people on possibly the very worst day of their lives,” he said. “We want to sha ke t heir hands. People of Conway have always supported the Fire Department.”

For more infor mat ion about activities, contact Winter at (501) 450-6147.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Top fires in 100-year history of Conway Fire Department

CONWAY - Conway Fire Chief Bart Castleberry was asked to name the top fires in the 100 years of the Conway Fire Department.

He said the list is not all-inclusive, but here are the ones he cited, in chronological order:

◊Conway Compress and Warehouse Co. in downtown Conway, which destroyed 3,000 bales of cotton and spread to 13 buildings, including St. Joseph Catholic Hall, 1926.

◊Central Baptist College, 1943.

◊Hotel Bachelor in downtown Conway, Dec.

31, 1962.

◊Sun Oil Pipeline, April 23, 1979. It’s memorable not only for the fire, Castleberry said, but firefighters Dirk Sutterfield and Larry Brewer suffered serious injuries.

◊Hendrix College Administration Building, Feb. 6, 1982. “It was 11 degrees below zero,” Castleberry recalled.

◊Chateau Village Mobile Home Park, 1987.

◊Foster Oar plant, downtown Conway, 1988.

◊First Baptist Church, 1992.

◊American Transportation Corp., July 27, 1994. “It was a big one,” Castleberry said.

◊Fiery Interstate 40 wreck, July 2002, resulting in five fatalities.

◊East Oakwood Place on Hairston Avenue, Dec. 20, 2004.

◊Detco Industries, January 2004. Not the biggest, Castleberry said, but it involved chemicals, and America was under a condition Orange, “so we had all this federal support show up because they were worried about terrorism. That’s when they told me I could talk to the president,” he said. Two employees were injured, R.J. Billings and Kirk Dingman. Billings incurred third-degree burns to 40 percent of his body.

◊The past three downtown fires, the most recent of which was May 2006.

◊Conway Boulevard house fire, which killed Jennifer Cissell and her three children, Gwenneth, Christopher and Arley Snodgrass, Dec.

21, 2009.

  • Compiled by Tammy Keith, senior writer

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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