Lakeland officially began as a community in 1885 and even in its early days experienced several fires that would lead to the eventual organization of a fire company. Fire protection in Lakeland started as early as 1891 with the purchase of two dozen buckets, a few axes, and a ladder for use by bucket brigades. But by 1905, after three disastrous fires swept through several major commercial areas in Lakeland, the need for an organized fire brigade was apparent and the call was answered by several highly involved community members, including H.L. Swatts who would go on to be the department’s first Fire Chief. These events prompted community leaders to secure funding for the department’s first major equipment purchases, two portable fire engines that could be drawn by hand or horse.
Fortunately for Lakeland, its leaders were wise enough to see the need for real and organized protection of its citizen’s lives and property. Between 1905 and 1908 major investments were made into what was then a loose group of volunteer firefighters. By 1909 a volunteer fire department was formally organized and granted horses, wagons, and the best available firefighting equipment by the city commission. The volunteer department’s numbers grew to meet the increased demand from the city’s steady growth and by 1913 the department had purchased its first motorized vehicle, an American La France pumper.
1913 also marked when the department transitioned from Chief Swatts to Chief Joseph LeVay, a local shop owner, whose oversight helped the department make major steps toward becoming a career department. The 1910’s saw the expansion of a citywide, alarm system and the purchase of additional firefighting engines. The growth seen during those years came to fruition when the Lakeland Fire Department became a career fire department on August 1, 1916. The 1920’s ushered in the addition of two substations that were later shuttered during the depression-era 1930’s. Fortunately, thanks to post-war boom, Lakeland flourished in the 1940’s and its population grew, creating higher demand for emergency response. By 1949, two full stations were added to serve Lakeland and the department continues to maintain that steady growth through today, having added at least one station every decade since.
Like many fire departments in the nation, the demand and volume of fire versus medical calls has completely shifted, and today of the nearly 20,000 service calls the department receives annually a majority are medical in nature. On December 15, 2003, LFD moved from providing Basic Life Support (BLS) medical services to Advanced Life Support (ALS) medical services at some of its stations and completed the transition to ALS care for its entire service area by January 31, 2011. The department remains a non-transport department.
Today’s LFD has grown to employ 161 personnel operating seven stations and an administrative building, with a response area of approximately 81-square miles. The department has also broadened its range of services to include heavy rescue, technical rescue, fire prevention, fire code enforcement, fire investigation, aircraft rescue and firefighting, in-house fleet maintenance, in addition to fire suppression.
In recent history the department has celebrated other major accomplishments, including its contributions to providing the best Insurance Services Office Public Protection Classification rating the City of Lakeland has ever enjoyed. Today, the Lakeland Fire Department enjoys the finest equipment, highly trained and professional personnel, and the ability to provide outstanding emergency response services to the people of Lakeland because of the forward thinking of its leaders over a hundred years ago, and will use that to its advantage as it continues to fulfill its vision of being the best public safety organization providing superior customer service, regardless of what year it is.