The Centennial History of the West Palm Beach Fire Department is written to record events of the West Palm Beach Fire Department from its humble beginnings in 1894 to modern department in 1994. As with any organization in existence for a hundred years, documentation for many incidents has been lost, poorly maintained, or never recorded. It has been a difficult process trying to gather information as there are very few people around to relate occurrences from even a mere fifty years ago. At least those who are currently available have been interviewed to preserve their memories.
Some of the information contained in this book came from Fire Chief Bennett T. Kennedy's The Fire History of the City of West Palm Beach, published in 1980. This was the first attempt to report the department's past in any detail, and we are grateful for his work. I used Kennedy's history as a guide in research, but in many cases additional information has been found that changed or added to his narrative.
There are still many gaps that need to be filled-in. I can personally recall a number of fires that are not detailed in this book, mainly because I was unable to obtain documentation. Many personal stories have been purposely omitted in an effort to stay focused on the department itself and other stories, of course, can only be told at the firehouse dinner table. It was difficult at times to stay objective after twenty-two years of “living” inside this history, but I have done my best to use only the available documentation. I sincerely apologize if anyone feels they have been slighted. It was not intentional.
I have strived to be factual, whether this reflected good or bad on the department. It would not be fair to future generations to alter situations in order for the department to appear "bigger than life." The West Palm Beach Fire Department, like any other, has had its ups and downs, its controversy, and its mistakes. That is the nature of firefighting, where fallible human beings are involved in life or death situations. This is neither a fairy tale nor a work of fiction.
Work began in the mid-1980s with the formation of the West Palm Beach Fire Department Centennial Committee. This small group of active firefighters was concerned with the preservation of our history for future generations of men and women who would carry on the traditions of our department. One goal was to salvage as much as we could and pass it on to the next generation of firefighters. It has not been an easy task, but many people have cooperated benevolently toward our cause, giving us encouragement in our mission.
The following deserve thanks for their assistance: Connie Voils, South College of the Palm Beaches; Nan Dennson of the Palm Beach County Historical Society; Joel Engelhardt of the Palm Beach Post; Mrs. Lois Tanner; Corky Dorey; and firefighters Walter Barndt, Brent Braunworth, Thomas Sheppard, Richard O'Brien, and Lester Milkins. A special “thank you” goes to Dot Rinehart of Robbinsville, North Carolina who edited the narrative.
Two people, Barbara Kinser, Secretary to the Chief, and Joyce Olsen, Clerical Specialist, have helped in gathering information from the dusty fire department files and in many other tasks over the years. Much of the documentation for this book would have been lost had it not been for their skills.
West Palm Beach firefighters will, I hope, continue the preservation of our history. We have done our best to provide a basic foundation that can be built on.
Ronald E. Johnson
West Palm Beach Fire Department
Battalion Chief, Retired
Ronald E. Johnson retired from the West Palm Beach Fire Department in 1991 after 22 years of service. He relocated to the small Smoky Mountain community of Robbinsville, North Carolina. He and his wife Nancy operate several successful businesses, including the world famous Tail of the Dragon. Their 20 acre home has a substantial vegetable garden, wooded trails, ponds stocked with catfish and bass, a flock of chickens and motorcycle collection.
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