CADILLAC — Haring Township Fire Department Chief Duane Alworden can’t imagine what it would be like to start a fire department from scratch.
But around this time 44 years ago, that’s exactly what current township clerk Kirk Soule and 17 other men did.
The Haring Volunteer Fire Department started offering community fire protection on July 1, 1975. It became active on Aug. 9 of that year and on Aug. 16 held an open house for the public.
It started to form in 1971 and 1972, but by the time they got training done and got equipment it had been a couple years, Alworden said.
He said Soule is one of the original firemen left in the area and is probably one of the most respected people in the township and in the fire service still.
Without him and the original firemen, there wouldn’t be a Haring Township Fire Department today. Alworden figures they must have felt determined and wanted to do what was best and right for their community.
Soule recently took a trip down memory lane with the Cadillac News to talk about what it was like to form a fire department, what the job challenges are and what has changed over 44 years.
“You do a lot of reminiscing," he said, looking at a picture of the original fire department.
Starting a fire department in the 70s
Soule said the department started doing runs in 1975. Before then the township had a contract with Cadillac where the city would provide the township with one firetruck that held 450 gallons of water.
According to old newspaper articles kept in a book at the fire department, part of the reason the township wanted its own department was so it could have more equipment to handle fires for a growing population.
“Increased population growth and an increase in building growth in the outlying township areas gave Haring the impetus to have their own fire department," Richard Clift, assistant fire chief in 1975, said.
“The contract with the Cadillac Fire Department ended July 1," he said. “Now we have more equipment than would have been provided under the city contract which called for only one truck. Now we have three."
“At first we thought of Selma, Cherry Grove and Haring townships all going in together to form one department," then fire chief Delbert Edwards said in the article. “But it was decided that if we were to go at all, we would go alone to get started."
Soule said he became involved with the department after an incident happened with his friend.
He used to race motorcycles and would work on stuff at a friend’s house and business. A fire started there one day and Cadillac fire department came to help but didn’t have enough resources to put out the fire, he said.
“So we sat there and watched his house and business burn down," Soule said.
He had never even thought about being a firefighter before, but he heard some guys were putting together a team and wanted to join
“We wanted our own fire department," he said.
The chief back then used to live on Haring Road and had a big building, so before they had their actual physical department they would store the trucks there and train in the garage. They bought stuff for the department from federal surplus stores.
“That’s because we didn’t have a fire hall yet," Soule said. “We had nothing."
They bought a six-by-six military truck and had a company build a tank for it, which the department then used as a tanker or tender to hold water.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 1978 the fire department was divided between two different groups regarding inner fire department disagreements.
Soule got along with both groups, so firefighter Howard Scarborough approached him and asked him to become chief.
“He said we’ve got to get the unity in the fire department," Soule said.
He said he’d do it temporarily. That turned into 35 years, so a “long temporary."
Although he hadn’t planned on being a firefighter, Soule said it was a different experience and he enjoyed it.
“It was exciting," he said. “That and you’re doing something for the community."
There was a lot of community pride back them, but he thinks people have lost that.
“I’ve been around this township long enough to see some changes, let me tell you," he said.
What has changed throughout the years
Soule said he remembers the firehouse’s earlier days of black rubber uniforms and responding to fires in the department’s 1948 Chevy Pumper.
The department began with a used fire truck purchased from the Kaleva Fire Department and a military truck used as a water tender.
“You had boots that pulled up, a helmet and if you were lucky, you had a pair of gloves that were fireproof," Soule said.
When they used rubber gloves they had to be careful or they could steam their hands with the heat, he said.
The National Fire Prevention Association states the rules for equipment and the rules and regulations change so much. Over the years there’s been a lot of changes in equipment, for the better, Soule said.
However, the cost and amount of equipment is very different now than it was back in the department’s early days. In 1975 they bought the truck for around $50,000. Today to buy an engine someone is looking at spending half a million dollars, Alworden said.
Soule remembers being overwhelmed when the price of air packs the firefighters use jumped from $600 to $850 each. Now they can cost around $6,000, Alworden said.
Soule said the training he did for firefighting was around 66 hours long, which was still multiple days of work, but for volunteer firefighters now they have to go through hundreds of hours of training.
Alworden said people used to have to call multiple people to let them know they had to go to a fire, like a phone tree. Now it’s instantaneous over the scanner.
They also used to just hire friends and neighbors to work in the department, but that’s no longer the case.
Society is different now and back when they started the department there was community pride. There isn’t as much of that anymore, Soule said.
Now he doesn’t think firefighters are in it for the pride, but for the excitement.
He said they’re all excited to go and fight fires, but if there’s an incident on a highway or a fatal fire they can see some truly horrific things. Sometimes it can cause a firefighter to have nightmares for years.
Everybody thinks they’re strong enough, but it’s kind of like being in the service. It’s not as bad as being in a war, but those horrific sights will “live with you the rest of your life."
“If you’ve never seen it you can’t imagine," Soule said.
The equipment made it safer, but it’s still a dangerous occupation. When that scanner goes off, they don’t know what they are heading to.
“You can replace a car and you can replace a house,‘ he said. “But you can’t replace what’s in that house."
What the future of the fire department holds
Alworden said new guys come to the station and say he should ask the board for a new station.
“I don’t want to get a new fire station," he said. “This is history."
The fact they’ve hit 44 years now is “pretty cool" and he couldn’t imagine a fire department being formed now. He’s not saying it couldn’t be done, but with the cost of equipment, manpower and training, “I don’t know how a community could do it."
For the present, the fire department is doing well and maintaining everything. Same as 1975 it is still a generally funded fire department and there isn’t a millage dedicated to the department.
“Every piece of equipment in here is paid for," Alworden said, gesturing around the fire department’s garage. “These township residents own all of this."
As for the future, “it’s always hard to talk about the future."
What scares him is when they don’t have people standing at the door any more volunteering to be firefighters. The manpower is shrinking and they don’t have a waiting list to get on the fire department like they used to before, he said.
He believes as time progresses that training will increase in quantity and intensity.
One of his goals for 2025, the 50th anniversary of the department, is to get a “50th anniversary truck," he said.
They currently have 22 firefighters on the roster and are going to have to start looking at updating equipment soon. The air packs are from the 2002 generation, so almost 20 years old.
Besides that though, the department doesn’t need any flashy equipment or a new station.
At the end of the day, they just need the firetruck to be red, the hose to come off and have the ability to put out a fire. And of course, the people to man it.
“You can’t put a fire out single-handedly," Alworden said.