Blazing Trails with Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department

The Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department marks 100 years of service

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In the mid-1920s, Vero’s nascent fire department was housed at city hall
In the mid-1920s, Vero’s nascent fire department was housed at city hall.

The year was 1919 and the fledgling community of Vero boasted a thriving downtown by the standards of the day. Ford Model Ts fronted the wooden buildings along the south side of today’s 20th Street between 14th and 15th Avenues, which housed a department store, a hotel, and an office selling property in the form of residential plots and farmland in 40-acre tracts.

Yet all were destroyed when the flames from a huge fire engulfed one structure after another, leaving nothing. The fire started at night, when it had a chance to spread quickly as business owners and residents slept.

This disastrous fire led to Vero’s first efforts at fire protection and to the founding, 100 years ago this month, of what is now the Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department.

By the early 1950s, VBFD had its own building and a growing fleet
By the early 1950s, VBFD had its own building and a growing fleet.

Members of the volunteer department are still active today, serving the community in conjunction with the professionals of the Fire Rescue Division of the Indian River County Emergency Services Department. Depending on their certification as firefighters, EMTs, or paramedics, they may ride along with their paid counterparts, assisting in saving lives and property. They also mentor the next generation of firefighters and hold fundraising events to provide scholarships for their further education.

Through the years, the organization has preserved a rich tradition of fellowship
and service, and also a tradition of sons following in the footsteps of fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles to protect their community.

After the 1919 fire, the town council appointed Councilman Ottaway Roach Sr. to be chairman of the Fire Protection Committee. It also voted to purchase a fire truck. The Model T with three 40-gallon extinguishers was primitive as fire vehicles go, but necessary because the town did not provide water service until it built a water plant in 1922. By 1923, however, Vero had purchased a new hook and ladder fire truck, and 18 citizen firefighters, with Roach as chief, formally organized as the Vero Fire Department.

A second story was added to the central fire station in 1964
A second story was added to the central fire station in 1964.

A bell on the water tower rang out to alert them to report to duty in the event of a fire. Later it was replaced by a siren, which was tested at noon every day except Sundays and holidays. When the siren sounded three times in succession, the volunteers came running. The original bell, still in working order, is displayed at Fire Station 1 on Old Dixie Highway. The siren was a means of alerting the volunteers until 1974, when pagers were issued.

Ray DuBose is a past president and former volunteer of the Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department
Ray DuBose is a past president and former volunteer of the Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department.

In 1926, the city—by this time named Vero Beach—hired its first paid fire chief and one paid fireman. Volunteers outnumbered the paid firefighters until the 1960s, when the numbers started to reverse and the city’s firefighters took strides toward greater professionalism through increased education. Indeed, today all are certified as EMTs or paramedics as well as firefighters.

Ray DuBose, a past president, traces his involvement with the VFD to his grandfather Oscar DuBose, who was a charter member, and to his father, Bob. His Uncle Fred was also a member. Ray DuBose was a volunteer firefighter from 1968 until 1990, and for a time both he and his father served together while operating the family jewelry store on 14th Avenue.

The VBFD was able to move out of city hall and into its own building in 1950
The VBFD was able to move out of city hall and into its own building in 1950.

“Many times my dad and I would take turns running out the back door of the store to the station,” DuBose recalls. The only fire station at the time was downtown on 20th Street, just west of the railroad tracks. “There was a little plant nursery in the middle of the block, and we would run through it, telling people we were going to a fire. Of course, they knew it because they heard the siren. We were usually on the second truck out.”

DuBose remembers fighting a number of notable fires in the 1960s and ’70s. “We had some big fires in the packing houses back then because they were constructed of pine wood,” he says. He also helped fight fires at the original hotel at Sexton Plaza and the Firestone store on 14th Avenue and 19th Place. “We would come running morning, noon, and night; it seemed like most of the big fires occurred at night, when no one was around and the fire got a fast start to it.”

Training for the volunteers consisted of monthly meetings to discuss various firefighting scenarios and the use of equipment. Later, the men were required to have 30 to 40 hours of training conducted by the paid firefighters. In addition, DuBose says, “Once a year the fire department would burn down a house and we would practice putting the fire out.” However, the state banned this training practice in the 1990s when three firefighters in Osceola County lost their lives inside a burning house.

The two original trucks can be seen amidst the more modern firefighting fleet of the mid-1970s
The two original trucks can be seen amidst the more modern firefighting fleet of the mid-1970s.

Being a volunteer firefighter was at times quite exciting, DuBose admits. But all the time it was a civic responsibility, and one they took seriously.

Mike Wodtke volunteered for both the fire and police departments
Mike Wodtke volunteered for both the fire and police departments.

This sentiment is echoed by Sue Wodtke Smith, who talks about her late brother Mike Wodtke, a member of the VFD for 20 years and a past president. “He wanted to be either a fireman or a policeman, but for health reasons he wasn’t hired. So, he volunteered for both.”

Wodtke was just 20 years old when he joined the VFD. “He always kept his gear at the back door so he could jump into the jacket and boots at a moment’s notice and race out the door,” his younger sister recalls.

“He would tell us not to mess with his stuff, and we just had to walk around it to get out the back door,” Smith laughs. He was dedicated to the mission, and he loved it. “When the siren went off, his adrenaline started and he was off, not knowing what would be at the end—a major fire or an accident.” In later years, she remembers, her brother always wore a yellow pager on his belt.

Mike Wodtke volunteered for both the fire and police departments.
Mike Wodtke volunteered for both the fire and police departments.

As with other families, being a member of the fire department became a family affair when Wodtke’s nephew, Chad Smith, joined as a volunteer shortly after graduating from Vero Beach High School. He attended fire school at Indian River Community College and joined what was by then the Indian River County Fire Department as a paid firefighter in 1996. Smith’s son Evan recently graduated from IRSC’s Fire Academy, and his younger twin brothers are considering the same career path.

Joe Hill, the current secretary of the Vero Beach VFD, says today’s volunteer firefighters serve in several capacities to support their professional counterparts. “Many of our members are young people who are hoping to make emergency services a career, or retired firefighters who serve as mentors to them. I would say our most important functions are the mentoring of the next generation and raising funds to help them with their formal training through fire school or EMT and paramedic certifications.” Their major fundraiser is the annual fish fry, held the last Saturday in March at Station 2, which is by the Merrill Barber Bridge.

David Johnson, the director of Indian River County Emergency Services, adds that the VFD provides a much-needed pool from which to hire. “We are growing in population and always need to hire more emergency personnel, and we like to hire as many locals as we can. These young volunteers get a taste of what it means to have a career in the field, and the retired firefighters, with their real-life experience and wisdom, help to coach and groom them.”

The Smith family includes twins Parker and Jacob, their father, retired Indian River County firefighter Chad, and Evan, who is a recent graduate of the IRSC Fire Academy
The Smith family includes twins Parker and Jacob, their father, retired Indian River County firefighter Chad, and Evan, who is a recent graduate of the IRSC Fire Academy. Photo by Steven Martine

Johnson, a Vero Beach native, joined both the VFD and the Volunteer Ambulance Squad when he was a teenager. The VFD sent him to fire school and he rose through the ranks to become Indian River County fire chief before he was appointed to his present position as head of all the county’s emergency services.

“Now, Fire and Rescue are combined, and we have 15 stations and are a well-equipped and well-trained department,” Johnson says. “We have progressed greatly over the years, but we had to start somewhere.”

And that start, 100 years ago, is the heritage of the Vero Beach Volunteer Fire Department. 

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