Nothing he wouldn’t do to save a lifeTom Tanner has served on Washington’s fire department for over 63 years
When Tom Tanner joined the Washington Fire Department the firefighters had no special clothing that they wore when working to extinguish buildings that had caught fire.
Tanner said he joined the fire department on April 4, 1951 at age 25, when he had just gotten out of the Army. He remembers having an old coat that he wore when he responded to a fire. In the case of smoke, the firefighters would wrap a handkerchief over their faces. He said there was little training for firefighters. He went to firefighters’ school in Ames for a few days per year. Once in a while, the fire service would come around and have a seminar.
“I was probably one of the youngest ones,” he said. “It was an old fire department. It just didn’t have any newer people. We had about 28, and only about five of us were in our 20s. Back then, most of the firemen
were also businessmen around the square.”
He said that his parents had a service station across the street from the fire hall. He said that seeing the firefighters respond to the hall and seeing the trucks go out, he decided he wanted to try firefighting.
The first opportunity to fight a fire came shortly after Tanner had joined the department. He said that he lived on East Jefferson Street and his first call was for a Quonset hut that had caught fire a few blocks over. He said that a man had died in the fire. He said that another fire had also happened around the corner from his residence about a year later. That fire also had a fatality.
“I have seen some pretty bad deaths in fires over these 60-some years,” he said.
Being former military, Tanner said that he had seen things like this before. Tanner said that he was in the military since 1943, serving during World War II. He said that he had served in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, 87th Infantry during the Battle of the Bulge. He said that he had his hands and feet frozen during the conflict and was in the hospital for three months afterward. After returning home in 1946, he attended junior college for two years. He married his wife, Charlene, in 1950 and joined the fire department in 1951.
“She didn’t think too much of that at first,” Tanner said. “We’ve been married for 64 years this November.”
Over the years he said that he had been to many fires. He said that in one fire a boy had taken some powder out of a shotgun shell and lit it. A girl upstairs did not get out during the resulting fire. He also remembers a fire in the trailer park on Wayland Road, in which two people had died in a trailer fire.
“The worst one I had was in the north end of town,” he said. “A father and son were repairing a mower in the basement and the gas exploded. The father caught on fire. I drove up in the fire truck and he was coming and he ran into me.”
Today, he says, many things are different. He said that firefighters receive “a lot” of training. The fire department is constantly trying to buy new equipment that will enhance the safety of the firefighters and the people the fire department serves. He said in the past having an oxygen mask set up away from the fire was a luxury. Tanner said that he remembers when the department only had one truck courtesy of Farmer’s Mutual.
After serving about five years on the fire department, Tanner became assistant chief. He later served as first chief before being promoted to fire chief. He served as fire chief for four years. He said during his time he always worked his hardest and “there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to save a life.”
During his time as chief, he said that the department had worked to get a new truck. This raised the city’s fleet of firefighting vehicles to three, which is the number of bays that was in the former fire hall, Tanner said.
After changing jobs, Tanner found he had to resign his position as chief. He said that recently he has operated the fire hall while firefighters are on calls.
“It is sure a lot different now than it was then,” he said.
He said for the size of Washington, the department is one of the best there is. He said the department now has good equipment, good personnel and good training.
Now, after over 60 years with the department, Tanner said that he is about ready to retire from the Washington Fire Department. He said that a recent surgery on his neck has limited his mobility. He said that no retirement date has been set, but it will be “soon.”
He said after his retirement he will become an honorary member and he still plans to assist when he can. A resident at the United Presbyterian Home, he plans to spend more time working in the home’s garden.
Tanner said that it is hard for the department to get volunteers who are willing to take the training required. He also said many Washington firefighters work out of town.
“They have to be dedicated to it,” he said. “It is something that you can’t get on and ride the rails. You have to be dedicated.”