The Sable Flames, an organization of the Madison Fire Department’s African-American firefighters, will celebrate their 25th anniversary with the annual Second Alarm Benefit Dance and banquet at the Concourse Hotel in downtown Madison on Feb. 24.
The event marks 25 years since the landmark organization was formed as a union of black firefighters striving to bring the community back together with the fire department after a tragic event estranged the Department from many members of the community.
In March of 1990 a house fire struck on Madison’s south side at what was then Somerset Circle. Somerset was located in an area that was technically in the Town of Madison rather than the City of Madison. There was a City of Madison Fire Station just blocks away.
The City firefighters didn’t want to stand and watch as a fire claimed a residence. So they chose to respond even though it wasn’t their jurisdiction.
Despite the heroism of those brave responders, five children died in the fire. It was a tragic loss and the community was outraged. The Fire Department was blamed and there was infighting about who should have been dispatched to the fire. The community had a lot of questions about what exactly had transpired that led to the deaths of five young kids.
In the aftermath, a group of African-American firefighters got together and decided to bridge the gap between the community and the Department.
“They wanted to do something remembrance of the children,” says Doug “Guy” Johnson, a Madison firefighter who is one of the anniversary celebration organizers. “The relationship was fractured with the community. To bridge that divide and bring the community and firefighters back together, a group of firefighters of color decided to do this dance to raise money and dedicated it to the kids who perished in the fire.”
Every year, the dedicated group of firefighters who call themselves Sable Flames host a dance and fundraiser. They also award The Jones Robinson Scholarship, named for the children who perished in the Somerset Circle fire, to students of color graduating Madison-area high school and who have been accepted to colleges or universities. The past two years, they’ve been able to give out scholarships to two prospective students because they’ve had successful fundraisers.
“We have a lot of connections with people who work in schools and we pass along the information for the scholarships on to counselors and teachers,” Johnson said. “We post it on our social media, the eligibility and requirements. So the student or parent can fill out the application. We review them and then decide who gets the scholarship.”
Johnson said that the dance and the anniversary are a celebration of diversity, especially because the Madison Fire Department makes a priority out of being a diverse force. Johnson told Madison365 that the Department is around 10 percent Black which is on par with the percentage of the Black population of Madison.
“Our department does a good job of making diversity a priority in the hiring process,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the people we serve to have a force that’s diverse and reflects the needs of the neighborhood.”
Johnson expects close to 200 people to attend the event on February 24, and all are welcome. Tickets are $35 each or $60 for a couple.