The City of West Plains is the county seat of Howell County and it’s history dates back to the mid 1800’s when the city was platted and began to develop. It quickly developed into a trade center for a farming and livestock-raising area.
Because of its location near the Arkansas state-line, it was subjected to numerous raids during the Civil War from both Union and Confederate forces.
West Plains continues to be a city with many faces and is blessed with a number of manufacturers including flooring, pallets, furniture and electronic equipment, as well as footwear and truck bodies. Tourism is also important because of the city’s proximity to several lakes and the Mark Twain National Forest.
West Plains can also boast about their celebrities. Porter Wagoner, the star of the Grand Ole Opry and country music was born near West Plains on August 12, 1927.
THE BIRTH OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT
Ironically, the birth of the fire department in West Plains came about around the same time as Porter Wagoner came on the scene. September 13, 1928, is the first written record shown of the West Plains fire organization. The city purchased a new, 1928 American LaFrance from Foamite Industries in Kansas City. The rig had a 500 gallon-per-minute rotary gear pump and an 80 gallon booster tank. Chief Gus Joliff was the only full time employee of the department. Records show that Chief Joliff would drive the truck during the day and Saturday and Sunday nights. Bert Woody was appointed the driver for all weekday nights. Firefighters were paid two dollars for responding to a fire call.
INTO THE 1940’S
In 1941 Cliff Mustion took over as fire chief for the City of West Plains and Robert Young was the assistant fire chief. There were ten volunteer firefighters. No records reflected any pay-per-call so the oblivious conclusion was that they were true volunteers without payment per calls.
In 1947 Glen Smith became the fire chief and Ed Wilson was his assistant and the staff had increased to a full dozen. There was also a huge increase in pay for the members as each fire call netted a payment of two bucks and each “drill” or training session each member got a dollar. At least we are now to the point where training was being recognized and payment was made for attendance.
In 1948 the city made another large investment in fire protection. A 1948 Dodge fire apparatus was purchased from Towers Fire Apparatus in Freeburg, Illinois.
Gene Towers was the owner of that company along with his son Gary and Dale. That would have been the same year that I met Mr. Towers. I was nine years old at the time. My Dad was the fire chief in my hometown of O’Fallon and they had purchased a new one ton Chevy and we took the truck to Towers for the installation of a front mounted 500 gallon per minute Barton American pump. I remember the trip because if you ride in a new truck without a body or bed on the back for a couple of hours through St. Louis, you remember it for a long time.
Mr. Towers met us at a large concrete building that I remember had big wooden barn style doors on it. It was more than likely the same building where the 1948 Dodge was built for the City of West Plains.
As it turned out, this was not my last encounter with the Towers family. My friend Grady North went to work for Mr. Towers as a design engineer and in 1970 the newly formed Boone County Fire District purchased three IH 4X4 front mounted 750 GPM pumpers from them when I was the BCFPD fire chief. By that time Gary Towers was the president of the company and they had graduated from the concrete block building in the heart of Freeburg.
AND ON INTO THE 1960’S
In 1961 another American LaFrance apparatus appeared on the West Plains scene. It was a far cry from the original 1928 unit and carried 500 gallons of water, not 80, and had a 750 GPM pump. The truck was delivered to Springfield by train and then driven to West Plains.
Then in 1963 something took place that would forever modify and expand the fire protection systems in West Plains and Howell County. Hubert Redburn was appointed the fire chief for the City of West Plains. Chief Redburn served his community and for a total of forty-two years, thirty-nine of those as the fire chief.
He not only worked tirelessly to improve his department but was also the driving force behind the formation of the Howell County Fire Protection District and many other organizations in his area of the state.
Interesting enough, 1963 was also the year that I finished my education at Oklahoma State University and was hired as a field instructor for a group at the University of Missouri known then as Firemanship Training. Some of you younger folks will know it now as the MU Fire and Rescue Training Institute.
When I started work, there were three staff members and one office staff that made up the entire program. Needless to say, we had to enlist lots of dedicated individuals around the state to make any impact on the training of firefighters.
MEETING THE GUY I CALLED THE “GENTLE GIANT”
I can’t begin to tell you the date that Chief Redburn and I met but I do remember a very narrow and crowded fire station with an alarm phone and small desk built into the wall with a chalkboard above it. Standing next to the phone was a tall, lanky guy with a broad smile with his hand stuck out to shake mine. This meeting started a union that allowed the university to have an ally in training for south Missouri for a number of years to come.
So you want to do a class on LP gas emergencies? Well come on down, we will make it happen. You want to show us tools that can be used to pry and cut cars apart? Sure, Jackie has lots of cars, come on down!
This open invitation to train any time, anywhere is still in place today. Last weekend on KY3 Springfield there was a news clip about an extrication class in West Plains dealing with new cars and the special approach required in electric vehicles. The Redburn tradition continues to this day!
WPFD AND THE FFAM
Not only has West Plains always supported quality training in their region, they are also a huge supporter of the Fire Fighters Association of Missouri. They have hosted the annual convention twice and always have a great turnout at conventions.
Current Fire Chief Roy Sims has been on the Board of Directors of the FFAM for a number of years. This position requires a huge time commitment and quite a lot of travel to meetings all over the state.
CITIZENS ARE IN GOOD HANDS TODAY
On a great one-day adventure to West Plains this week Elaine and I discovered that Google had no idea where any of the fire stations in that community were located. We finally ended up at fire station two and met an awesome young man by the name of Lucas Cyr. Lucas is a firefighter/engineer assigned to that station. We got a great tour of what seemed to be a brand new station full of equipment belonging to both the city and Howell County Rural Fire District.
It seems that the two departments are kind of, joined at the hip, so to speak. They not only share quarters, they have entered into a limited joint response plan that allows better responses for both organizations on specific calls. WPFD has three stations and based on the two we visited, they are state-of-the-art.
Since state-of-the-art stuff and agreements don’t just come about by accident, I think it is good leadership. Chief Roy Sims and his assistant Kirt Wilbanks can take credit, as well as Roy’s predecessor Chief Tim Bean, who was an assistant chief under Chief Redburn for five years until Hubert retired in 2001.
After we received good directions from Lucas, we finally arrived at station one. That was another wow experience. Lt Wayne Cormier met us at the front door and we received a great tour. I reviewed many of the logbooks dating back to 1928 and that information alone would fill a complete book.
I would say that the statement on the West Plains Fire Department website says it all…“Excellence Never Rests.”
Authors Note: Since State Fire Marshal Tim Bean literally grew up in and with the West Plains Fire Department, I asked him for some observations which are here adjacent to my article.
I’ll close with one of my observations. I have known every state fire marshal in our state since the first appointment of Chief Bob Morrison from the Lee’s Summit Fire Department.
Our present fire marshal stands out because of his intense effort to stay connected with the rank and file firefighters of the state.
Thanks, Tim and Judy for all those trips to all those places.