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Early in his working life, John Shelley hadn’t planned on becoming chief of a major city fire department. That came later. As a young man in the early 1900s, he worked for a company hauling heavy goods and equipment. Back then, teams of two, four or even more horses provided the ‘horsepower’ of the day.
Shelley was fond of telling about the day he delivered a large cast iron safe to the basement of a downtown bank. It would be the bank’s primary security for money and other valuables entrusted by customers. His team of four horses was to back the wheeled safe down into the basement of the bank building using a specially built ramp. At the bottom, a section of the brick foundation had been removed to accommodate delivery of the safe. Shelley was raised on a farm, so handling a team of four horses for the job would be routine. Or so he and his colleagues thought.
Early on the morning of delivery, the big safe was brought to the site tied to a heavy-duty wagon. It was unloaded at the top of the ramp and then secured to the horses’ harness with specially designed straps. Sturdy men positioned it at the top of the ramp. After that, the team of horses began to back it down slowly to the basement.
All went well, at first. The safe was part way down the ramp when Shelley heard a loud ‘crack’. It sounded like a gunshot. The straps holding the safe to the harness had broken. It freewheeled down the ramp on its big cast iron wheels, gaining momentum as it went. The out-of-control dark-painted monster rolled faster and faster. No one dared try stopping it. When the safe reached the cement floor, it was moving at a brisk clip. It went barreling across the room where it would be housed, crashing through a sturdy wall beyond. Then the big safe suddenly stopped.
Startled workers rushed down the ramp, through the basement opening and approached the scene, preparing to survey the carnage. There, amid clouds of dust they found the safe, by some miracle still upright. It had come to rest at the foot of a bed occupied by the newly appointed bank clerk and a young woman, clutching bed sheets to her chest, whose name they never learned.
John Thomas Shelley topped a long and distinguished career as a firefighter by serving as the fire chief of Calgary, Alberta, from 1945 to 1950. Later, he was invited to take charge of standardizing fire fighting equipment throughout Alberta. At the time, cities and towns possessed a wide variety of equipment, much of which could not be connected to equipment from other towns and cities. When he’d finished, equipment from one fire department could be called in and connected to assist any other fire department anywhere else in the province when emergencies arose. For many years after, the project served as a model for other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States. Many people owe their lives to the success of his work.