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Former Cave City Fire Chief inducted into Hall of Fame

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Norman Sensabaugh, former Cave City Fire Chief, center after being inducted into the Arkansas Firefighters Hall of Fame at the recent State Firefighters Convention. He is pictured with (left) Curt Coles, Assistant Cave City Fire Chief and Ronny Milligan, Chief. Photo/submitted [Order this photo]
After 37 years of service to the Cave City Fire Department, former Chief Norman Sensabaugh was recently inducted into the Arkansas Firefighters Hall of Fame at the State Firefighters Convention. His induction was the result of a letter of recommendation from current fire chief Ronny Milligan, who served with Sensabaugh for many years.

The retired chief had many interesting stories to tell about the history and evolution of the department, which he joined in its early years.

The Cave City fire department, which is currently in the Three River's Firefighter's District, was established in 1958 after a new home was lost to fire. A group of residents met to begin the effort to establish a department. Money was raised and the city bought its first equipment. In 1959, it was able to purchase a truck for $1,510, which was a lot of money in that time. That same year, a small one bay fire station and meeting room was built and went into service in January of 1960.

Sensabaugh joined the department in 1966, despite working on the road as a salesman. "There were eight or nine of us who joined back then, but only four or five stayed after they seen how much work it was," he said. Sensabaugh explained, back in those days firefighters did not have the protective turnout and safety gear they do today. "You just fought fires in whatever you had on. If you ruined it...you just ruined it," he said. Some days, firefighters were called out during church and fought fires in their church clothes.

He recalled a major fire in 1968 that destroyed six businesses on Main Street, and brought fire departments from Batesville, Newport and Evening Shade to assist with the 9 hour fight. Due to the installation of a 100,000-gallon storage tank just a few months prior, some of the buildings were spared. During the fire, the department only had the original 1938 open cab fire truck, bought in 1959. Sensabaugh laughed, saying, "It was great during the winter time, the snow came in on your face."

The fire in town was eventually stopped "They had so much confidence in the fire department, that everyone was taking their things out of Johnson's store at the end of the block," he said.

The historical fire, which began at Reed's Coin-O-Matic Laundry, destroyed the Sharp County Record's circulation office, a dress shop, general store, hardware store and barber shop.

The 1968 fire was a pivotal point for the department, causing city government to realize the importance of upgrading the department's equipment. The department later received turnout gear. "They were junk, but they were still more than we ever had before," he said of the six white duck-cloth coats, fiberglass helmets and plastic gloves.

The truck, which was nearly 30 years old when Sensabaugh began with the department, had wood spoke wheels and was hard to brake. Sensabaugh recalled how the department was alerted to fires, since in those days, there was no 911 service. The station was located on the current site of the First Baptist Church, and the system consisted of a a war surplus air raid siren, which would be plugged in at Street Motor Company and pointed it up in the air. Calls would come into the motor company or McGee Funeral Home.

"Then we got pretty fancy and mounted the siren on a tower on top of the motor company building," he said. You would hear it, MAYBE, and try to figure out where to go. The controls and timer were on the McGee Funeral Home owner's residence, which was next door to the motor company. This allowed for calls to be answered at night. The siren would run for two minutes. Once a fireman knew where the fire was, the fireman's wife would call three more firemen's wives, until everyone was alerted. The firefighters would make their way to the station, and get the truck started, which he said was sometimes a challenge.

Sensabaugh laughed about push starting the truck, and the firemen jumping in as it was going down the hill. The funeral director's wife would stand in the street to tell the men where the fire was. Because the brakes were bad, they would sometimes pass her by and have to back up for directions. "There was many times we would go right past a fire, because the brakes wouldn't work, and when we would finally get it to stop, we would back up to the fire," Sensabaugh recalled, with a smile.

Between 1970 and 1975, revenue sharing helped to turn things around for the department, which was always lacking funding.

A portion of state taxes were sent back to cities and Cave City was finally able to get a new fire truck in 1975.

Sensabaugh explained the financing and later need for training. "Back then a mayor could not go into debt longer than his term in office. To remedy the problem, they put the truck on lease/purchase option. The department bought it on a ten-year lease. If the next mayor didn't want the truck, the company just came and got it. It was paid for from annual revenue sharing."

The new truck had the department's first air packs. While most of the fireman knew what air packs were, they did not know how to use them, until some of the younger guys went to training sessions -- something that, even today, is important to the continual evolution of the department. He said, "We would put the fire out on the outside, and the ones who were trained with the air packs would go inside and make sure it was out." Milligan laughed and said, "That's not the way it was supposed to be." He said, many times, the men without the air packs would still go inside and come out coughing.

Things have changed a lot for the fire department. The department has trained as first responders and established a rescue unit. In 1989 -- thanks to the dedication, fundraising efforts and hard work of Sensabaugh -- the Cave City Fire Department was able to establish a rescue unit. With this, came many challenges, including finding fireman willing to be trained to face blood and auto accident injuries, and who could take the time to complete the required extensive training. Prior to the rescue unit's establishment, Batesville and Cherokee Village units had to come to Cave City accidents, at times leaving their area without coverage.

Sensabaugh and many other's since, including Milligan, have also become first responders, EMT's and paramedics as well as being firefighters.

Sensabaugh's dedication to the department continued from 1966 to 2003, when his failing health prevented him from assisting with fires. He was been instrumental in helping the city move from a Class 8 ISO rating in 1984, to a class 5 in 1999, to a class 4 today. Milligan said, "This was all accomplished by Norman's knowledge and ideas. These everyday operations are still used today." Milligan explained Sensabaugh was also instrumental in developing great leaders in the department, and many, including himself, still go to him for advice and information.

Sensabaugh said he was very humbled by the nomination by Milligan, but gave all the credit to the teamwork of the department. He said they are the ones who deserve the award.

Over his many years of service, Sensabaugh has earned a long list of awards and certificates, including Cave City Firefighter of the Year in 1992, and completing the Arkansas Firefighter Diploma with all possible classes and seals. He has also taught classes at the Arkansas Fire Academy for many years. He has served as Chief, Assistant Chief and training officer during his 25 years with the department.

Sensabaugh and his wife, Lola, have two children, Chris Sensabaugh and Tammy Conyers.

Milligan credits Sensabaugh with making fire fighter training and testing more accessible to rural departments. Milligan said he couldn't think of another person as worthy of the award.

"The Cave City Fire Department is known for being one of the most proactive fire departments in the state. We were one of the first to implement positive pressure and Class A foam in this area. All of this is because of the leadership of Norman Sensabaugh and his family's willingness to give 37 years to the fire service."

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