Written by David Shivers
The history of firefighting in Albany is a long one, dating back the better part of two centuries. Since 1836 there has been a coordinated effort in the community to protect lives and property from devastating blazes, according to Albany Fire Chief James Carswell.
Chief Carswell spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Albany on July 16 about the department’s history and heritage – including such esteemed personalities as Chief D.W. “Billy” Brosnan, who served as chief from 1911 to 1951 – and how firefighting efforts have transitioned from the 19th to the 21st centuries. The department has its roots in 1836 with a bucket brigade and a person-to-person alarm “notification” system. The transition to a fulltime paid department took place in the 1890s. At one point in the 1920s, according to the chief, Albany was declared “the fire-safest city in the country.”
Through a contractual arrangement with Dougherty County, the department’s coverage area has broadened and the number of stations has increased from one central site downtown to 10 spread throughout the community. Firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on duty then 48 off.
The AFD has long and proud history that it continues striving to live up to, said Carswell. Training is a big part of it, with every employee receiving 240 continuing education hours a year.
Firefighting faces a challenge in the current atmosphere of budget cutbacks where training is often one of the first things to be eyed for cuts, the chief noted. Approaches to firefighting have changed as building materials have changed, he said. When Carswell – who has headed the AFD since 2005 – began his firefighting career some 40 years ago, construction materials were mostly wood; now builders use wood-substitutes with chemical makeup’s that can actually make fighting fires more difficult. The result is fire situations where more training is needed, yet training often is reduced due to monetary constraints.
A big focus for the AFD is fire prevention, Carswell said. Kitchen fires are the most common, he added, with the Albany department averaging about 400 a year. Statistically, he said, less than one percent of fires originate from anything other than human error.
With a current political climate of focus on personal responsibility, Carswell observed that “fire prevention is something where you really can be accountable to yourself” by observing simple prevention guidelines (such as not leaving cooking food unattended on a stove and keep flammable materials a safe distance from heaters) and making sure homes and businesses are up to codes for electrical and safety standards.
During Chief Carswell’s career, the Insurance Safety Organization (ISO) ratings for Albany have gone from a “9” to a “2”, collectively saving millions of dollars in premiums for property owners.
The insurance savings represent money that is then turned back into the local economy, said the chief.
Albany Fire Chief James Carswell – flanked by Tim Thomas (left) and Todd Butler – speaks to Kiwanis of Dougherty County members at their weekly meeting on July 16.