GRETNA, LA (WVUE) - A South Louisiana fire department holds the distinction of being the oldest volunteer fire department in the country, and those volunteers in the city of Gretna still have their first steam-powered pumper.
It’s a modern fire department with a history that dates back more than 175 years.
“It actually started as a bucket brigade and uh, the company formed in 1841,” said B.J. Leblanc with the Gretna Historical Society.
Gretna’s David Crockett Volunteer Fire Department has been in continuous operation longer than any other fire department in America. The old fire house was built a couple of years before the Civil War, and they still have their original horse-drawn steam pumper purchased in 1876.
“There’s a trough over here in the back of the pumper where they would store coal and wood,” Leblanc said. “They would open the bottom over there, get the fire started, get the pumper going.”
Only 73 of these steam-powered water pumpers were ever built, and the one here in Gretna is the only one that's still in existence today.
Water would be pumped from the town’s water system or the Mississippi River.
“And this would pump roughly 200 gallons per minute, which was pretty quick at that time,” Leblanc said.
Today there are about a dozen paid staff on duty at Gretna’s fire stations. They maintain the equipment and drive the trucks to the fire, but everyone else is a volunteer.
“If you can leave work, you leave,” said Gretna Fire Chief Michael Labruzzo. “If you're cutting your grass, you turn your alarm off and you go and come back to it later.”
Labruzzo is one of the volunteers. He’s been around fire trucks since he was a child. His dad is a former chief of the department.
“In the old days they didn't have breathing apparatus,” Labruzzo said. “My dad used to always say make sure and carry a handkerchief in your pocket, and you wet the handkerchief and you put it over your face. And that's what they used to do back in the day.”
In the early years, fire alarms would sound from the old bell tower.
“The number of bells that rang would dictate where it went to, where they went to, so all the firemen would go there,” Labruzzo said.
And then fire boxes were added to utility poles throughout Gretna.
“Somebody would pull that box. It sent an electronic signal indicating the number and therefore the location of that box. They would see 3234 was Burmaster and Hancock streets,” Leblanc said.
The station is managed by the Gretna Historical Society, and it is also the state fire museum. You can see early uniforms, helmets and antique rescue apparatus, and hook ladders for scaling multi-story buildings.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed
“It’s just something that you get in your blood and, and, uh, the adrenaline that gets going when that alarm goes off, and it just makes you do it,” Labruzzo said.
It’s the dedication of volunteers who still respond to the alarms and fight the fires that threaten their community.