OLD MYSTIC, CT - Chief Ken Richards Jr. smiled as he leaned back in his desk chair at the Old Mystic Fire Department headquarters on Cow Hill Road.
Richards spoke about his love of history and said that while studying for his master's degree in leadership, he would enroll in as many history electives as he could find.
He looked around the room, and with a gleam in his eyes, spread his arms wide to illustrate how amazing it has been for him to live his passion for the past with a longstanding firefighting organization. "Here we are, surrounded by history," he said, happily.
There's a lot of history at the Old Mystic Fire Department - 175 years worth, to be exact.
The department will celebrate its 175th anniversary on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Reliance Fire Company No. 1 Station House, 21 North Stonington Road.
The original 1837 resolution signed by Connecticut Secretary of State Royal R. Hinman formally establishing the "Mystic Fire Engine Company" is displayed under glass at the firehouse.
An 1837 hand tub fire pumper built by Vanness & Smith of New York and donated to the department by John Hyde, great grandfather of former chief Edwin Hanks, is still housed at the station and will be on display.
Chief Richards said the pumper was pulled by hand from Station 1 all the way to downtown Mystic to help fight a fire on Sept. 22, 1858, a distance of more than three miles with several steep hills heading south from Old Mystic or "Upper Mystic" as it was called at the time.
The department has changed dramatically since then, but one thing that hasn't changed is Old Mystic's core values - a great source of pride for Chief Richards.
"We display those values on the sides of our trucks: 'Integrity, commitment and compassion,'" Richards said. "Those were their core values in 1837, and they're still our core values now."
Strong leadership has been at the heart of OMFD's success; there have been only four chiefs since 1941. Richards succeeded Hanks in 1993. Old Mystic Fire Department is currently a combination department comprised of paid and volunteer staff with approximately 90 members, including a 20-person dive team. It responded to an average of 1, 340 calls annually over the past two years.
The department was awarded a $216, 154 grant in February from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Assistance to Firefighters Grants program. The funding will be used to for an apparatus bay exhaust ventilation system and a second training trailer for confinedspace and technical rescue training.
Volunteers were knocking down the doors when Richards first joined the department in 1976, but changing family structures and less free time make it tougher to attract new recruits.
"Today's volunteer wants an organization that presents itself professionally to the public," Richards said. "They can see after the first interview that the organization is well run; it has good leadership and good members.
"They can hold us to a standard that is measurable, and know that a year later they will have Emergency Medical Technician and Firefighter 1 training under their belts and be an integral part of an organization that is doing its best to serve the public."
The type of materials found at a modern fire is drastically different than what was found in the 1830s. Early structures were made primarily of wood and wool fabrics; current materials are far more volatile.
"Today's homes have furniture constructed with a lot of foam cushions; they are basically like gasoline, a by-product of carbon," Richards said. "The fires burn faster and hotter, but we have better training, better firefighting equipment and motorized apparatus. We also have breathing apparatus; they didn't have any back then."
Saturday's event will showcase modern firefighting education with demonstrations of what it's like to be inside a building filled with smoke, courtesy of the Mystic Fire Department's smoke trailer.
There will be fire extinguisher training; fire prevention education with materials for children and families; fire apparatus on display for tours; hot dogs, popcorn and drinks; chair massages by Hutter Chiropractic/East West Chiropractic; blood pressure screenings; a strolling magic show with Derek Whitneck and commemorative T-shirts and booklets for sale.
The event is free and open to the public; visitors are asked to bring a nonperishable food item or new toy to benefit the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and Groton Human Services.
The department's 175th anniversary committee includes Kirsten Cohoon, Kevin Czapla, Fahad Hussain, Craig Mateyov, Kristen Mateyov, Angel Otano, Adam Petrillo, Geraldine Richards, Edward Ryan and Chief Richards.
"The people and taxpayers of the Old Mystic Fire District are our number one concern," Richards said. "We would like people to stop by, see where we were and where we are now, meet the people who go to the calls at two o'clock in the morning, and talk to me or any of our officers about our vision for where we want to be in the next 20 years."
This photo of the Old Mystic Fire Depar tment's Reliance Fire Co. No. 1 pumper was taken in the 1940s. The truck was customized for fire ser vice by the volunteers; one of two pumpers they constructed. Photo Courtesy of the Old Mystic Fire Department. Old Mystic Fire Depar tment Captain Keith Richards practices high angle rope rescue. Keith, Chief Ken Richards' son, became a junior member when he was 14 and is now a paid firefighter and one of Old Mystic's training officers. A view of the old fire station in the 1940s.