In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Milwaukee Fire Education Center and Museum has some serious motorized "bling."

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The museum is located in a 1927 bungalow firehouse on the South Side.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Displays include equipment like this old street corner alarm box.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

There's also a full set of run cards that made sense of the alarms for fire companies.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Much of the building has been restored to its 1927 state, including the kitchen stove.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The back phone allowed firefighters to call home during shifts.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The hose tower was for drying out cotton hoses after a run.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Milwaukee's first Cadillac ambulance.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

These Dictabelt ribbons are packed with MFD history.

Burning passion fuels Fire Education Center and Museum mission

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"He's putting a USB connector on it. We just bought a brand new, big Mac. What we really want to do is match up the incoming calls, the communication with the dispatchers and all the photos that we have for PowerPoint presentations. We will have actual sound from those fires. We probably have about a half-million of them."

After a peek around the attic (there is only one room up on the second floor, surrounded on three sides by open attic), we head back downstairs and stand at the bottom of the hose drying tower and peer up.

Ski tells me about how veterans would assign rookies to sit by the window at the top of the tower "on lookout," and about how seniority ruled when it came to using the pay phone at the back of the station to call home during shifts.

Out in the biggest room there is a brass fire pole, but it doesn't actually lead up to a hole in the floor, since there's nothing but attic above in these bungalow fire stations.

In here there is a range of gorgeous classic firefighting apparatus, including two built by the MFD shops in the 1930s and an early Cadillac ambulance.

"This is just part of our collection," says Skonieczny, showing off the bright red "bling" – adorned with polished chrome – of the collection. "We actually have a few in storage, and that's always the ongoing thing. We're trying to figure out what we're going to do with all the things we're collecting. We're kind of outgrowing (this place).

"They built these (firehouses) because the trucks were bigger than the older ones, and they were the first motorized apparatus. Well then a couple generations later, now they're closing it because the new rigs aren't fitting in here."

Leach says that a lot of department history on paper that is maintained by the historical society is also kept off-site because the museum is not a climate-controlled facility. And, as Ski said, space is a constant issue.

The collection has its roots in the late 1940s and 1950s says Skonieczny, when a series of chiefs began to recognize the importance of preserving the history of the department. Many items and records were stored at the fire academy until the society was formed and began to acquire personnel files, company journals, department journals.

Leach says that a lot of valuable records and items were literally fished out of dumpsters.

A group of collectors called The Fire Bell Club was instrumental, he says, in saving big rigs and equipment.

Now, many retired firemen, or their survivors, donate items like uniforms, training manuals, books. Other items are acquired on eBay.

The museum is a great place to do research. Not only is there a database of multiple alarm fires dating back to 1853, but there are magazines, annual MFD reports and more.

"A lot of it is good for researching back because you start piecemealing things together," says Leach. "We have a lot of those records. Our friends in Chicago, they have no records from the Chicago Fire Department. It's all gone. Disappeared."

For families whose more recent relatives were firefighters, there's another, more personal reason to do your research in the place you're most likely to run into Leach and Skonieczny.

"Like Randy said, often somebody will come in and say, 'Oh, that's my dad! Did you know my dad? He used to work here!' Yeah, I worked with him!"

But at the moment, the museum is not overwhelmed with visitors. And that's a shame because the museum is not just valuable in theory. There is a lot on display and there are mountains of useful records.

Getting folks in the door and to keep coming back is a constant battle, says Leach.

"We are in what I call the custodial mindset, and through these efforts we've been trying to utilize this building. There are other fire museums that I've been doing a lot of research on and that's the biggest thing: you have to get (visitors). You don't want it to be an antique store, where people just come in and look."

The key, he believes, is to connect the dots for visitors. To offer something deeper than a truck, a hose nozzle, a helmet. To paint a picture of how those items figured into firefighting and the daily life of firefighters.

"They want to know the stories," Leach says. "And that's what we've been attempting to do. Now the next step is the sound and the photos and stuff. For a number of years, they were all just stored away and we collected them, which is great. But now we have to get them in a format where they can be accessed. Because right now, even though we change these (displays) around a little bit, what's going to draw you in the second time, the third and the fourth?"

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