A fantastic new treasure - the history of the Tucson Fire Department - is now available online.

The department was founded in 1881, just four years after Tucson was incorporated, and 31 years before Arizona became a state. It was a completely volunteer organization until about 1900. After 1915 all firefighters were paid.

Gasoline-powered motor vehicles fully replaced horse-drawn equipment in 1917. By 1967 diesel fire engines began replacing the gasoline-powered engines, and diesel-powered engines remain in use today.

Many of TFD's early apparatus can still be found throughout the city, with several still in the department's possession.

The 131-year history of the department is now at www.tucsonfirefoundation.com/tfd-archive online.

The site is very well organized and incredibly detailed - a true "research center." You can select from a menu that includes 20 different facets of the department and its operations, including Records, Major Incidents, Historical Articles, Fire Apparatus and Scrapbooks.

The database contains thousands of articles, documents, photographs, videos, and voice transmissions and alarms.

My favorite section so far is "Major Incidents" that links to descriptions of the Congress Hotel Fire of 1934, the Pioneer Hotel Fire of 1970, Air Force jet crashes of 1967 and 1978, and the Old Tucson Studios Fire of 1995, among many other significant fires.

Tucson's worst disaster, based on loss of life, was the Pioneer Hotel fire. According to Assistant Chief Dave Ridings, this "intentionally set fire quickly raged out of control in the 11-story hotel … leaving behind 29 fatalities, along with the hospitalization of 32 civilians and 19 firefighters."

For a truly engrossing experience, listen to the voice transmission record of this catastrophe (click on "Major Incidents," then scroll down to "Pioneer Hotel Fire 1970, Voice Transmission"). Over the course of the hour it took to control the fire, a total of four alarms were called, summoning all fire equipment and ambulance resources in the city to the scene.

You can listen as firemen radio to central control that fire-panicked hotel guests are jumping out of upper-floor windows and off the roof.

The online TFD history has been accomplished under the auspices of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, an organization formed in 2010 to support the greater Tucson fire community.

Ridings and my brother Al Ring, volunteer archivist/historian, with the help of many friends of the department and firefighters, collected, organized and entered historical items into a computerized database.

Ridings has lived in Tucson since 1971 and is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. Today he is assistant fire chief for emergency medical administration, the 911 Communications Center, and disaster preparedness.

He wrote a short history of the department in 2011.

Before retiring to Tucson in 1998, Al Ring spent 26 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Saint Matthews Fire Department, near Louisville, Ky. Soon after arriving in Tucson, he wrote a book about the 84-year history of that department. He's since been the principal researcher for the three books we've written together and a key source for many of the historical columns I've written for the Arizona Daily Star.

Al is busy expanding the TFD online database, adding pieces weekly under each of the current headings. He will soon add a complete chronological history of TFD operations. Future plans include an honor roll with photos and personal information on each of the thousands of members of the TFD from 1881 to the present, including three firefighters who lost their lives on active duty.

So far, he said, "We've done the easy stuff, plowing through readily available material. And there are still 100 to 150 boxes in the TFD basement that I haven't even opened."

Meanwhile more information is needed from other sources such as Tucson libraries, historical societies and current and former firefighter families. So this is a never-ending adventure.

To contribute to this history treasure, email Al at ringal@comcast.net

On StarNet: Read Bob Ring's recent columns at azstarnet.com/bobring

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com