Attention fire service scholars, history buffs and owners of historical fire documents: This October, the National Fire Heritage Center (NFHC) will make history when it opens its doors for the first time. Scholars—and the public—will have access to the only institution that collects and archives the institutional history of the fire service and allied professions.
“The difference between us and the many museums out there is that most fire museums recall the history of the hardware of the fire service and of the local organization that housed it, such as the fire museum in New York City,” explains Ronny J. Coleman, retired California State Fire Marshal and president of the Heritage Center. “The National Fire Heritage Center is focused on the legacies of individuals—their lives and contributions.”
A Home for Fire History
The NFHC is located in Emmitsburg, Md., near the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) campus—home of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Foundation. Modeled on the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Penn., the NFHC will house original important work by writers; published literature on the fire service, the insurance industry and research laboratories; seminal publications; recorded oral histories of individuals; and historic artifacts.
“We’re interested in institutional memory and the intellectual property of individuals who had an impact on the fire service industry—and not just firefighters,” Coleman says. “We’re trying to tell [individuals’] stories by having a library where people can research the past.” Visitors will likely include those attending the nearby National Fire Academy, students, authors and historians.
The materials collected by the NFHC will cover the progress of important technologies and methodologies of fire suppression and the technology of built-in fire protection. “We’re archival; we want to cover the whole evolution of fire technology, standards, prevention—everything,” says Wayne Powell, a renowned fire prevention expert and executive director of the Heritage Center.
In addition to the archives (many of which will be digitized and made available on the internet), the center will present exhibits based on individuals’ lives—such as FireRescue magazine founder Jim Page and fire behavior expert Lloyd Layman. “But our objective is not to be a hands-on museum,” Coleman stresses. “We will focus on information.”
Once the NFHC is fully up and running with archival and security measures in place, Powell says, “The Smithsonian wants to put the majority of their fire collection on permanent loan to us. About 95% of what they have is never on exhibit where it can be seen.”
A Long Time Coming
The concept of the NFHC was introduced—and outlined in great detail—in a 2003 FEMA report titled “Heritage Hall: A Proposal to Archive the History of the Fire Service/Fire Protection Disciplines in America.” Coleman says that the report was distributed to many people, but no action was taken until July 2005, when a group of leaders in the fire community met to discuss the idea. “I call us ‘the over-the-hill gang,’ because we’d all had careers of many years in the fire service,” Coleman explains. “We called a meeting in Frederick, and agreed that we’d be the ones to act on the report.” That group became the board of directors for the NFHC, and since that meeting, “we’ve made a lot of progress,” Coleman says. “We have money in the bank, a home for the center, a membership, a strategic plan and we’ve created the Hall of Legends, Legacies and Leaders.”
The Heritage Center will officially open to the public on Oct. 14, in conjunction with the National Fallen Fire Fighters annual memorial events in Emmitsburg. “We’re going to take advantage of the fact that [fire] leaders from around the country will be there,” Powell says.
The new center will need to find a larger home relatively soon, due to its growing collection. For now, it shares a building with the Frederick County Fire Rescue Museum and Preservation Society. “We are tenants of the museum, which just opened in April,” Powell explains. Because the new museum is already expanding, and the NFHC is projected to grow tremendously, Powell estimates that the NFHC (and probably the museum) will outgrow the facility within 12 to 18 months. Coleman says, “We’ve got a beachhead, basically. We will not be restricted to that building as we grow.”
Help Save Our Heritage
The board of the NFHC wants to spread the word throughout the fire community to consider the historical importance of photographs or documents, such as meeting minutes or drafts of new standards. “The truth is, every single day, critical pieces of fire history are being thrown away,” Powell says. “The fire service is rather pitiful at saving paperwork.” The center plans to help fire organizations—including associations and manufacturers—preserve their own history. “We want to teach them the proper preservation of their historical materials,” Powell adds.
Of course, the NFHC is also interested in donations of documents and other historical materials. Coleman states, “We want to appeal to the families of firefighters who’ve passed away after many years in the fire service, and have left belongings and papers that their family might not know what to do with.” Another option for long-time fire professionals is estate planning. “For example,” Coleman explains, “I have more than 500 history books, and my will states that those are all going to Emmitsburg.”
Perhaps most importantly, Coleman encourages members of the fire service to take advantage of the new center. “We welcome members and visitors to the Heritage Center. If you’re attending the National Fire Academy, stop in.”
For more information on the NFHC, visit www.nationalfireheritagecenter.com.