St. Matthews Fire Department Nears Its 100th Anniversary

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Bill Seng has been fighting fires long before it was his actual job. After first becoming a volunteer firefighter in 1978 he’s certainly come a long way, now as the Chief of the St. Matthews Fire Department since 1992, but he still recalls those early days when things weren’t as easy.

“I volunteered back in the days where firefighters responded from home,” he says. “They wore pagers. Pagers just first came out around that time that you wore on your hip. They would dispatch you, and you would respond from your house to the firehouse. It was totally volunteer. There were no career firefighters at that time. You basically get on the truck and respond to the scene.”

Seng commands a large operation and one that has steadily grown over the years. From the days of the volunteer to the introduction of career firefighting, the St. Matthews Fire Department has come a long way. Even as recently as last year the department expanded yet again in an effort to find ways to improve efficiency and range of service.

“We merged with the Lyndon Fire District last year,” Seng says. “Because they had the need for EMS out there also. We already had the capabilities to do that. They came to us and said, could they merge with us, bring in all their operation under our command staff and what have you. That July 1 of ’18, we merged with Lyndon. They operate in two firehouses in their district. Now, the St. Matthew’s fire district has four stations fully staffed and there’s an ambulance operating out of each one of those stations. Now, we’re up to four ambulances.”

As to how the stations operate, Seng explains.

“There’s a fire company in each one of the stations,” Sent says. “Back before we merged, we only had the two, so there is one company in each station. They’re staffed with four people on it and on a company. Out of those trucks or “apparatus” as we call them, there’s four guys assigned to it.”

Unlike the majority of other jobs, firefighters work much different schedules.

“Now, firefighters typically work a 24/48,” Seng says. “They only work every third day. The one crew comes on they work 24 hours. They’re off for 48. They don’t come back again until that third day.”

It might seem like strange hours but it works, Seng says.

You need three platoons to cover all three days until the first platoon comes back on,” he adds. “One engine company has four on 24 hours a day. For the next day, you need another four and then the next day, you need another four. There’s 12 firefighters assigned to each station — 12 here, 12 at station two, 12 at station three and 12 at station four, in total. There’s only four at each station every day.”

But besides increasing the jurisdiction and firepower of the St. Matthews’ Fire Department, the recent expansions are absolutely necessary, according to the chief. He cites that the amount of the aforementioned “runs” the department makes is thirtyfold the amount it did when Seng first came aboard more than 40 years ago.

“When I first came up here in ’78, we were making about 300 runs a year,” he says. “Let’s just say one a day. Today, we’re averaging about 30 dispatches a day, which includes EMS. We’re going out the door 30 times a day. Most of those are medical but those significant fires are down.”

Which is a point that is generally contradictory to what one thinks a fire department does. Seng says the amount of “working fires” is tremendously low anymore and the majority of their job involves many other facets of civil service, which, he says, is obviously a good thing.

“We make a lot of car and dumpster fires,” Seng says. “But we don’t really classify those as working fires. The number of big incidences over the years are down. We make a whole lot more runs, both fire and EMS, from alarms soundings to a fireplace fire or something like that, but the big, significant, big burning fires. They’re fewer and far between, because technology is a lot better and building materials. There’s more fire conscientious building construction going on, so those numbers are down. We still make a significant amount of car accidents, but those are down as well, too, as far as a lot of injuries, because of the improvement of cars. They’re designed now to take a break or an impact or the airbags. The major injuries, it’s not like what they were many, many years ago.”

The department will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year which, according to Sam McCune, is no small feat. McCune, a 40-year veteran who retired as a captain in 2000 but who returned to work in 2007, believes it’s an achievement to be proud of. He recounts a bit of the department’s long history.

“A lot of the surrounding departments in the county that make up the fire districts, most of them started much later than we did,” he says.

While Seng is certainly not the first or last fire chief the St. Matthews Fire Department has seen, he is the one responsible for overseeing the celebration of their 100th anniversary. There’s a lot of past here to be proud, decades of legacies and heroes to remember. So while there may not be any grand plans to draw attention to it Seng says there will certainly be activities that highlight this feat.

“Every year, we hold a rib cook-off contest for area firefighters who come up here on a Saturday, and we close the street off, and it’s a festive-type atmosphere where we just promote a camaraderie,” he says. “That’s what we plan on doing most of our push for the 100-year anniversary. It’s held in October. That’s where we plan on putting up advertising of the100th anniversary.”