By Tori Wittenbrock
DE PERE – This year marks a significant milestone for De Pere Fire Rescue – celebrating 150 years of existence.
What started in 1872 as the De Pere Fire Co., when it officially transitioned from a private organization to a city department, is now De Pere Fire Rescue – growing from two teams of 10 to nearly 50 full-time and part-time employees.
The department has two fire stations, one on each side of the Fox River, protecting a population of more than 25,000 in an area covering roughly 12 square miles (With a combined coverage area of more than 25 square miles when you add in areas of the towns of Ledgeview and Lawrence and a portion of Ashwaubenon).
A look back
In 1890, De Pere and West De Pere consolidated into one city and the fire departments were combined into one unified force.
The area and the department continued to grow – installing new fire hydrants, rebuilding old firefighting equipment and ordering more hoses to serve its residents.
The department increased in size again in 1957, when the number of firefighters expanded to 22, as recommended by the State Fire Rating Bureau.
Prior to this, the department was organized into two companies, each consisting of five men, as well as a fire chief and a designated truck driver.
This expansion caused a temporary relocation of the department to the municipal city garage until a permanent location could be established.
In October 1959, the fire board requested the construction of a new station with a proposed $32,585 budget.
The new station was built on the corner of Broadway and Lewis, and still stands today.
More big changes came to the department in 1974, when the department began an ambulance service, something the city had contracted with private emergency services until then.
Two years later, the Fort Howard Paper Foundation presented the fire department with a new emergency rescue vehicle.
The city’s first paramedics completed training and became state licensed in 1978.
In the same year, the 911 emergency line was instituted in the area.
Fire Chief Alan Matzke said over the years, the department’s paramedic work has increased significantly.
“The fire service has changed dramatically in recent years,” Matzke said. “About 85% of what we do now is medical work. We had to change and adapt to the needs of the community.”
Matzke said the department has had its struggles over the last century-and-a-half, which has included some devastating fires.
He said one of the most devastating fires in De Pere’s history occurred on June 4, 1964, destroying the Jacobs Supermarket building.
He said the Radant’s Bargain Outlet building fire in 1990 took two full days to douse the flames.
Matzke said despite the unfortunate loss of some of De Pere’s historic buildings, no firefighters were harmed.
Most recently, a downtown restaurant fire in 2019 took a tremendous effort to quell the disaster. It took De Pere Fire Rescue the efforts of 80 firefighters to finally put the fire out.
“I was there that day,” he said, noting the 1990 fire occurred the year he started his career with the department. “Our resources were stretched to the limits.”
Changes over the years
In the beginning, Matzke said the fire department’s focus was simply on training to extinguish fires and other hazards.
However, over the years, he said the department has evolved to include medical services and increase its contribution to the safety of the community in as many ways as possible.
Despite the changes, Matzke said the department’s dedication to maintaining the safety of the people of the community has remained constant.
Each year, De Pere Fire Rescue responds to more than 3,000 calls for service – quadrupling the 700 calls from 1982 when the city began charging residents for rescue calls.
The department responds to these calls with a team of 29 full-time members and 20 part-time employees.
Celebration and festivities
Though the “official” 150th anniversary occurred on March 6, the department is celebrating the monumental milestone all year – with commemorative flags and truck decals with the 150th-year emblem.
The annual open house in September will also contribute to the celebration.
“We typically get an overwhelming number of people from the community showing their support,” Matzke said. “This year will be special, because the theme will be the 150th anniversary.”
The open house is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 24, and includes public education events, fire station tours, live demonstrations, prizes and food.