Weslaco Fire Department celebrates century of service

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WESLACO — In 1921, a major fire swept through downtown here, frightening the pioneers who had founded Weslaco just two years earlier.

That concern led the town’s leaders to a gentlemen’s agreement — they would band together to form a bucket brigade in the event of another blaze.

Just three years later, in 1924, that moment of truth came when yet another conflagration nearly destroyed Weslaco’s nascent downtown.

It took the concerted effort of fire departments from neighboring communities to get the fire under control. Ultimately, that fire sparked — pun intended — the formation of Weslaco’s own fire department.

“In March 1924 is when the official fire department was born,” Weslaco Fire Chief Antonio “Tony” Lopez said during a centennial commemoration ceremony held at Weslaco City Hall on Friday.

Lopez was speaking before a small group of current and past firefighters to celebrate not just the legacy of the department’s previous 100 years, but its future, as well.

“We’re here to reflect on the last hundred years and thank those individuals that decided to organize, decided to make Weslaco a better place to live and giving us the opportunity … to serve a little thing bigger than us,” Lopez said.

“It’s our job to keep that legacy moving forward through training, through apparatus, through station placement and everything you do,” he added.

Part of the department’s legacy includes being one of the first departments in the Rio Grande Valley to pioneer municipal-based ambulance service, starting in 1979.

“Weslaco Fire Department was one of the very first municipal fire departments to have EMS in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas,” Lopez said.

Shown is a challenge coin commemorating the centennial of the Weslaco Fire Department. Weslaco firefighters received the coins during a ceremony at Weslaco City Hall on Friday, April 19, 2024. (Dina Arevalo | [email protected])

“We’ve been running ever since, improving every day,” he said.

Lopez spoke of how today’s emergency medical capabilities would be unrecognizable to someone serving on the front lines during the early days of EMS.

The chief described how modern ambulances are equipped with advanced lifesaving technology, from 12-lead electrocardiograms, to machines that can perform CPR efficiently and never tire.

“Our outcome of survival has gone through the roof and all … the paramedics are getting a pulse back even before they get to the hospital, giving the citizens of Weslaco an opportunity to get a second chance at life,” Lopez said.

But the current crop of firefighters who sat in the audience Friday didn’t have to take Chief Lopez’s word for it.

That’s because they were able to hear directly from a person who was there — retired Fire Chief Steve Wilson.

Wilson joined the Weslaco Fire Department in 1973 and stayed with the department for 32 years, including two decades as its chief.

Wilson described what it was like to be one of the first firefighters trained to provide emergency medical care years before the department made EMS official.

“In them days medical care was — wasn’t even cut rate. It was really bad and we knew the citizens of Weslaco needed a better medical facility,” Wilson said.

Wilson described the sense of pride he felt when the department began to officially offer ambulance service.

Weslaco firefighters hold up challenge coins commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Weslaco Fire Department during a ceremony at Weslaco City Hall on Friday, April 19, 2024. (Dina Arevalo | [email protected])

And he spoke with reverence of one the department’s legends — a man with a direct line to one of the city’s founding fathers, and the man who taught Chief Wilson everything he knows.

“Capt. Swinnea was my captain. He trained me on what I needed to know,” Wilson said of retired Capt. Bill Swinnea, who was also in attendance at Friday’s ceremony.

Swinnea’s father came to the region in 1918, just a year before Weslaco officially incorporated, he said.

Like Wilson, Swinnea served a long tenure at the department, starting in 1961.

“We used to have a lot of fun. We were kind of a simple group and didn’t know a lot, but it was great,” Swinnea said of his two decades of service in the Weslaco Fire Department.

Both Swinnea and Wilson spoke fondly of their time in the department.

Wilson said he “enjoyed every minute” of his 32 years, while Swinnea described his fellow firefighters as “a real family, like you are today.”

Lopez, the current chief, said the department’s current successes couldn’t have happened without his predecessors, who provided such giant shoulders upon which to stand.

“Our job is very easy because the system was built. It’s been built for a hundred years. We just captured that punt and we’re running with it now to that end zone,” Lopez said.

Now, the department is using that solid foundation as a base for continued growth.

To that end, the chief described the strides the department is making toward the future, including training its force to be able to handle emergency situations at the city’s airport.

“We have actually completed the first class of ARFF firefighters,” Lopez said, referring to aircraft rescue and firefighting training.

Eventually, Weslaco’s ARFF firefighters will be qualified to train their own colleagues on the specialized tactics and will allow the department to grow its “toolbox” of highly technical services, which already includes high-angle rescue, confined space firefighting, dive water rescue, HAZMAT response, and wild land firefighting, Lopez said.

Further, the department is slated to receive new apparatus in the coming years, including a 107-foot aerial truck and a $1.6 million pumper rescue truck, Lopez said.

“I think this is an exciting time for us as Weslaco firefighters, not only being a hundred years (old) … but really, it’s open as (to) where do we want to take it next,” Lopez said.