The first volunteer fire company in La Crosse (Pioneer Engine Company) was organized in 1857 after the first conflagration of real magnitude occurred on March 7 of that year. After the fire, all buildings on Front Street from State Street to Mt. Vernon Street were left in charred ruins. The agency purchased a hand-pumped fire engine in 1858 and a steam engine in 1867. The decade of the 1880’s saw a great growth for the City of La Crosse. The population of the city had increased from 14,505 in 1881 to over 25,000 by the end of the decade. In 1889 a fire alarm system was installed to keep up with La Crosse’s rapid expansion. In 1890 a new water main system with a reservoir was installed to provide a reliable water system for the agency.
The agency remained a strictly volunteer agency until 1896, when a full time, paid agency was established. The new agency was divided into five stations with forty-five personnel, with two Silsby steam engines, five hose wagons and hose carts, and three hook and ladder trucks. The agency responded to 232 emergency calls in 1896.
The horse drawn pumper era, which started in 1874, began to come to an end with the transition to motorized apparatus in 1915. In 1925 the city allocated $1,300 to the agency for a rebuilt Pierce-Arrow combination chemical and hose motor cart. La Crosse grew and expanded in the 1940’s and 1950’s, forcing the agency to grow as well. In 1957, 93 authorized firefighters worked out of five stations and responded to 729 emergency calls. In 1968, 102 authorized firefighters responded from four fire stations to 882 total calls, of which 30 were medical in nature. In comparison, in 2012 the agency responded with 92 personnel to 4,947 total calls, of which 3,694 were medical calls.
In 1983 the 911 La Crosse County Emergency Dispatch Center (EDC) opened to serve La Crosse County. Between 1967 and 1983 all fire dispatching for the City of La Crosse was conducted by firefighters from fire station 1 at 5th and Market Streets. The 911 EDC is still operating today out of the La Crosse County Law Enforcement Center.
In 1993 the agency trained personnel to the EMT-D (Emergency Medical Technician Defibrillation) level to answer a growing need to provide quality emergency medical services. In 1997, the agency was reorganized from an engine/truck based system to a Quint based system, with light rescue apparatus added to respond to a growing need in emergency medical services.
In the early 1990’s the agency recognized the need to provide specialized emergency services in the fields of hazardous materials, technical rescue, and water rescue. La Crosse has a rugged topography of bluff land, three major rivers (Mississippi, La Crosse, and Black), and major transportation hubs (Mississippi River, Interstate 90, and Burlington Northern – Santa Fe railway) forcing the need for these three specialty teams.
The Fire Prevention and Building Safety has evolved over the years and has provided services in code enforcement, fire investigations, fire sprinkler and alarm testing, plan reviews, underground and above ground tank inspections, reviews for fireworks and pyrotechnics, juvenile fire setters program, pre-planning, and fire safety public education.