Alabama Firefighters Museum begins comprehensive planning

Published 10:04 am Thursday, August 13, 2015

A display at Verner Johnson's recently created National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. (Contributed)

A display at Verner Johnson’s recently created National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. (Contributed)

By JESSA PEASE / Staff Writer 

CALERA— In 2010, J.D. King decided to donate his collection of fire fighting antiquities to Shelby County in order to create a firefighter museum. What began as a simple plan morphed into a large-scale project, bigger than anything King could have imagined.

“We are going to build something that is sustainable, that really has a meaningful purpose behind it,” said Russell Jackson, CEO of the Alabama Firefighters Museum and Education Center. “The ideas that began to surface were far beyond anything Mr. King and the county really envisioned.”

Ideas for the museum related closely to the number of fire-related deaths in Alabama. There were 93 deaths in Alabama in 2013, ranking Alabama third in the United States for fire-related fatalities. According to Jackson, efforts have not been able to shift this data in a more positive direction.

He attributes this to lack of fire education. Because 84 percent of fire coverage in the state is by volunteer, there aren’t many full-time fire prevention officers who can visit schools for safety programs.

“The mission of the museum has morphed into where we want to reduce the number of fire-related deaths in Alabama,” Jackson said. “We want to make a big difference in that direction. That’s why we morphed and that’s a big challenge we are going to undertake.”

For a challenge so large, Jackson said they decided to turn to museum experts to create a comprehensive museum plan. They reached out to one of the best in the business, Boston based Verner Johnson.

Verner Johnson was involved in projects including the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Smithsonian Institute, the Tampa Bay History Center and Discovery Park of America, and a recent Forbes magazine survey placed five of Vern Johnson’s projects among the top 25 most highly visited museums in the U.S.

In May, the architects began a five-month process to provide a comprehensive museum plan, the feasibility study and preliminary conceptual designs for the museum. The company held stakeholder meetings, gaining input from fire officials, experts at the Alabama Fire College and department leaders in Montgomery and Shelby County.

“What’s so great about it is they will guide us on the size of the museum that would be sustainable and what all it should encompass based on all the feedback they’ve foreseen,” Jackson said. “We are real excited about this.”

Jackson said they will see the results in the latter part of December. Behind the scenes, he said they are conducting their own research to determine what experiences the public might encounter at the museum, such as virtual fire fighting, simulations for driving the fire engine, suiting up in fire gear and more.

From there, the Alabama Firefighters museum will launch a capital campaign in spring of 2016, and retired congressman Spencer Bachus has already agreed to be the chair of that campaign. Campaigns take about 18 months, and during that time, Verner Johnson will also be creating the blue prints.

Jackson said the goal is to break ground in spring of 2017 with hopes that the museum will be open by the summer of 2018.

“The direction we are headed with the museum — it will become a tourist destination being right off Interstate 65,” he said.