For more than five decades, the Missouri State Fair Fire Department has provided emergency services to the multitudes of visitors and while actual fires are rare, the organization runs hundreds of calls, facing many unique challenges.
The department was founded in 1962 in an old Army tent near the Beef House. At that time, the firefighters were just there to provide information on fire prevention. Several years later, they were actually charged with protecting the grounds and an emergency medical service component was added.
“We have come a long way,” said Public Information Officer Lt. Joe Jennings. “We started in 1962 just to provide information on the fire service and progressed to where we are at.”
While they are only there for 11 days out of the year, a day in the life of a State Fair Firefighter is very similar to that of a firefighter in any other department. Mornings begin with station cleaning, truck cleaning, equipment checks and a daily briefing.
“Mornings start with a daily briefing of what is going on around the fairgrounds, after that every day we do some sort of training,” Jennings said. “We bring in 40 different agencies and do training as one, so that they can bring some of that training back to their department.”
Sometimes that training becomes one of the most attended events of the Fair. Firefighters conduct live vehicle fires, accident rescue simulations and display some of the amazing equipment that people’s lives depend upon on a daily basis.
“We are always doing something out in front of the station. We are always handing out coloring books, little sticker badges, and we have a little stress reliever fire hydrant this year we are handing out. We’re giving tours of the fire trucks, it’s amazing how kids love getting in there,” Jennings said.
The most common incidents at the fair are usually medical calls, such as falls, heat-related illness and diabetic emergencies.
“We had a pregnancy call this year where a woman almost went into labor. Luckily, we got her off the grounds before that happened,” Jennings said.
Regardless, the department is prepared to respond to any type of emergency.
“We have four ambulances here on the grounds and four engines,” Jennings said. “The ambulances provide advanced life support medical services so you are going to get the same treatment in our ambulance as you are as soon as you step off the fairgrounds. We are ready to go at anything that’s thrown at us.”
An enormous challenge in the face of thousands of visitors walking the grounds at any given time is just getting to the scene.
“It is an absolute challenge to get an ambulance and firetrucks through the big crowds,” Jennings said. “We don’t run our sirens on the fairgrounds for the sake of all the different animals that are on the grounds. We do run the lights. All the captains on the engines have their own techniques. They use the intercoms on the trucks and scrape the microphone so there is some sort of noise.”
This year has been relatively quiet. The department is averaging 10 calls per day — 22 of those were on Saturday — but years past have tested the department on several fronts.
“A race car careened into the grandstand in 1965. We don’t have a lot of information on that, but we know it happened and there were several injuries,” Jennings said. “Back in the ’80s, a stuffed animal trailer caught on fire on the midway. That’s probably the biggest fire we have had on the grounds. We have been very fortunate not to have had any major fires.”
Firefighters come from all across the state to volunteer at the Fair. Every firefighter that works the Fair is a member of the Firefighters Association of Missouri, an organization that offers them several benefits and acts as the voice of firefighters to the legislature.
“We’ve got people from the northwest to as far as down in the Bootheel. We have about 40 departments represented and average about 40 to 50 personnel a day,” Jennings said.
The Missouri State Fair Fire Department is the only operational fire department in the United States that operates for only 11 days a year. The Department is staffed with volunteers 24 hours per day throughout the State Fair and can be found on Facebook by searching for Missouri State Fair Fire Department.