The History of the Lakeland Fire Department
Lakeland officially began as a community in 1885 and 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. By 1905, after three disastrous fires swept through and leveled 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 leader. 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 saw the need for real and organized fire protection for 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 the career department it is today. 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, with Ben Driscoll serving as its first career Fire Chief. With the 1920’s came two new substations that were later shuttered in the depression-era of the 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. Improvements and additions have been made to the department every decade since with exciting additions like: Technical Rescue in the 1980’s; the formal creation of two separate battalions in 2004; the addition of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) in 2007; the addition of a new truck company in December 2014 that came with the anticipated opening of new Fire Station 7 in January, 2015.
Like many fire departments in the nation, the demand and volume of fire versus medical calls has completely shifted, and today of the nearly 22,000 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.
Where we are today:
Today's Lakeland Fire Department has grown to employ 170 personnel operating seven stations, a maintenance facility, training center, and an administrative building, with a response area of approximately 84-square miles in 2014. 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, and in-house fleet maintenance; all in addition to fire suppression and emergency medical response.
In recent history the department has celebrated other major accomplishments, including its contributions to providing the best Insurance Services Office (ISO) Public Protection Classification Rating the City of Lakeland has ever enjoyed, a 1. It is the highest achievable classification in emergency response for a community and directly translates to development in the Lakeland community and insurance rates for residential and commercial customers. Today, the Lakeland Fire Department enjoys top of the line 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. An exciting development to come in the story of the Lakeland Fire Department is its fast approaching centennial celebration as a career fire department. Additionally, with the booming and continued growth of Lakeland as a cosmopolitan urban center the fire department looks forward to continued growth.