By Pat Kumpan
The Poway Fire Department, which celebrates its 50th year starting Saturday, can trace its roots back to some young, enthusiastic volunteers who wanted to keep their community safe in the early 1960s.
Imagine as 16-year-olds experiencing the rush of being called out to a fire.
Bob Krans, Mark Sanchez, Bill Briscoe and a few others can.
“They used to have a special bell at Poway High and when it went off, we left class ready to fight a fire,” Briscoe said.
“We kept extra clothes in our cars, ready to go at a moments notice,” Sanchez recalls.
As Explorer Scouts with the fire department post, Krans, Sanchez and Briscoe were among the teens who were considering careers as firefighters, the trio recently said.
During the department’s early years, it was predominantly volunteers ready to protect the community, along with a handful of adult “members,” initially under Fire Chief Jim Westling, then later under Chief Von Ruple.
It was Westling who turned to the Poway High students for help when he realized there were not enough volunteers, Briscoe said.
“They treated us like adults,” Krans added. “They kept us on the straight and narrow.”
“We were allowed to do the hydrants, some exciting stuff.” Briscoe added. “They really trusted us.”
It was Poway High Principal James Olivero who allowed the teens to respond to the fires, Krans said.
But the privilege came with a price — maintain good grades and you could participate, otherwise, you were out, according to Krans.
The teens were considered junior reservists until they became 18, when most of them readily moved into regular reserve status.
Many of the young volunteers not only moved up the ladder in the department, but several ended up having lifelong careers, and Sanchez, who made it to chief, continues to serve the city as director of safety services.
Lewis Edward “Pat” Wills, now in his 80s, was not only Poway’s first fire marshal, was a father-figure to the teens.
He had a matter-of-fact approach, said the former volunteers.
“We were there to teach them about putting out fires and how to prevent them,” Wills said. “We always got accolades about how we treated volunteers.”
“We looked up to him — and others — as our mentors,” Briscoe said. “I always thought I have six dads when I was around them.”
For three years, there were no doors on that early fire station, located on Community Road. Being on a shoestring budget limited the amount of equipment that could be purchased.
Eventually an ambulance was purchased by the Poway Firefighters Association, and during the department’s earliest days, nozzles and hoses were kept in the fire chief’s car until needed.
One of those early nozzles was recently rescued from being tossed out, according to Briscoe.
That along with a red dome that originally was attached to a fire vehicle, but partially melted during a fire, are some of the memorabilia that yesterday’s fire crews want to keep for nostalgia’s sake, he said.
Dr. Bob Dougherty, who had an office near the original fire house, became the department’s “doc.”
One of his primary purposes was to teach CPR to some of the volunteers, but to also offer advice about medical situations.
As the department grew, he said, “I wouldn’t let anyone teach CPR, unless they knew CPR.”
Dougherty can recall when the “jaws of life” was purchased, equipment used to extricate a driver or passenger after a car crash.
“I never thought we’d be able to raise the money,” Dougherty said.
His opinion of those early volunteers and firefighters is that they were “saving people more than other stations.”
But it was the “A Buck a Head for Paramedics” 1975 campaign, which raised $35,000 for a new paramedic program, that helped turn the tide for the department, many of whom were later cross-trained as both firefighters and paramedics — now a mandatory requirement these days — which greatly expanded the department’s services, Krans said.
“There were 18 of us who graduated from that first EMT class,” added Krans. “We’re pretty proud of that.”