Hundreds of Madison-area community members will join the Sable Flames, an organization of the Madison Fire Department’s African-American firefighters, when they host their annual Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance on Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Concourse Hotel in downtown Madison. This annual event is an evening of dancing, fun, recognition and most importantly, raising money for scholarships to help individuals fulfill their educational dreams and goals.

“We’ve been doing this event for 24 years and obviously we’re already looking forward a little bit to the next one, our 25th,” Benefit Dance Chairman Doug Johnson tells Madison365 at an interview at station 6, located on Badger Road on Madison’s south side. “We are going to figure out something special for next year.”

The Sable Flames’ mission is to provide support, knowledge and leadership to members of its organization as well as to all members of the fire service. The Sables emphasize the importance of hiring, recruitment, promotion and retention of African Americans and other persons of color. Their annual Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance fund-raiser event will have a D.J., food, dancing, prizes and much more.

“At this year’s event we will have a 50/50 raffle and we’ll also have door prizes that will be gift cards and gift certificates to local establishments like Johnny Delmonico’s, the Atwood Family Barber Shop, the Stamp House, and many other places,” Johnson says.

There will be beer and wine and items up for the silent auction. “We’ll also have a photo booth at the event that makes .gifs,” Johnson says of Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), which is a bitmap image format commonly used for images on the Internet. “That’s kind of a new thing and we think that’s going to be pretty fun.”

Sable Flames at a previous Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance
Sable Flames at a previous Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance

Every few years, the organization of the Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance has gone through its continued evolution of always getting younger and younger – from firefighters Robert Hansbro to Johnny Winston to Mahlon Mitchell to Steve Redmond. Now, it’s Johnson and the younger generation’s turn.

“They approached me and five other guys last year after the Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance to see if we wanted to take it over,” Johnson recalls. “It’s always been passed on like that. We’ve been working hard to freshen up the dance and freshen up the Sable Flames to help them become more visible in the community.”

The Sable Flames have increased their social media presence by having a Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat accounts and updating their Facebook page more often. “We’ve also done a few events with local 311 charities … we’ve partnered with them on some things as well as Burn Camp,” Johnson says. “We’re getting out in the community to do different things. We’re really trying to be more visible.”

It seems the torch has been passed to the younger generation, but are the older Sable Flames still around? “Yeah, sure. We have retired guys who are still around. Lt. Hansboro is still working here [at the south Madison station.] He’s probably one of our biggest Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit ticket sellers,” Johnson says. “And obviously [Madison Fire Division Chief] Art Price and [MPD Division Chief] Johnny [Winston Jr.].”

Are we ready to call Johnny Winston Jr. an “older guy?”

“Haha. He probably wouldn’t. But he’s been around awhile and has had a ton of experience and expertise,” Johnson laughs. “Once in a while, he’ll be sitting around saying, ‘Wow. I can’t believe that I’m the guy talking to you guys the way the older guys used to talk to us when we first started.’ But we look up to all of those guys and they definitely helped with the transition and let us know about a lot of the history. Obviously, those guys have a lot of connections in this city.”

(L-r) Members of the Sable Flames Second Alarm Scholarship Dance committee: Richard Garner (Secretary), Brandon Jones (Vice Chairman), and Doug Johnson (Chairman)
(L-r) Members of the Sable Flames Second Alarm Scholarship Dance committee: Richard Garner (Secretary), Brandon Jones (Vice Chairman), and Doug Johnson (Chairman)

Johnson, one of the younger firefighters, has been on the job for about four and a half years. And it’s a job that he really loves.

“For me, I love going on calls every day and I love the fact that they are often very different. You are constantly around people on possibly their worst day and the fact that you can make it better in some way is the most intriguing part about being a firefighter,” Johnson says. “You also get to see the best of humanity, too. When you arrive on the scene and people have already started medical care for somebody or even just helped us out when we get there.

“I just love being out in the community and interacting with people … even when we’re not on calls,” he adds. “Obviously, the best part is getting to help people when we are on calls.”

The brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighting are great, too.

“We get to know each other here at the station and laugh and joke about things. This is family,” Johnson says. “We take care of each other. We have to.”

Johnson says that being a firefighter is much more than what you see on TV’s “Chicago Fire.”

“We do have structure fires, but we also go to car fires, dumpster fires, small kitchen fires, animals stuck in sewer drains, carbon monoxide calls, gas leaks, brush fires, lightning strikes a tree and starts a fire,” he says. “We’re pretty much a toolbox on wheels and if it’s not an outright crime, the only person to call is us.”

Johnson says they now have 38 active Sable Flames, along with a bunch of former Sable Flames. Just about all of the Sable Flames will be at the Second Alarm Benefit. Nobody wants to miss it.

“Technically, any black firefighter who is full-time is eligible to be a part of the Sable Flames,” Johnson says. “We just brought on our first guy from Sun Prairie Fire Department, so we’re excited about that, too.”

The Sable Flames have developed two scholarships to help young people:
◆ The Jones-Robinson Scholarship, awards to minority persons who live in single-family households or in low-income neighborhoods.
◆ The Arthur Dinkins III/MATC Fire Education Scholarship, to financially assist persons who would like to take classes at Madison Area Technical College to become certified as a firefighter or as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

“One hundred percent of the money that gets raised at the Second Alarm Scholarship Benefit Dance – all the ticket sales and everything from the 50/50 raffle and the silent auction – goes to the Jones-Robinson Scholarship. Last year, we gave out two $1,000 scholarships,” Johnson says. “This year, I’d like to give out at least four $1,000 scholarships. Eventually, we’d like to give out a higher amount of money in our scholarships and a higher number of scholarships.”

Are there still tickets available for the event?

“Absolutely. Tickets will stay on sale up to the day of the event and you can even get them at the door on Saturday,” Johnson says. “If you can’t make it but want to contribute to the Jones-Robinson Scholarship fund, you can buy a ticket online.

“The event is a good way to meet the people who are serving in this community and it’s a great way for people to know who we are and what we do and maybe to show your support for education for the youth of color in Madison and Dane County,” he adds. “It’s a fun time. Music, dancing, and networking with other people in the community. It’s a great community event.”