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Volunteer firefighters respond 24/7

When a 911 call comes in, an electrician, a cook, a carpenter, a plumber, a parts manager, two excavators and a handful of city employees rush to the fire station.

Their average response time is 4 minutes, getting from their day jobs to the fire hall. There they suit up while backing the trucks out of the garage. Will they need a ladder truck, a pumper or a tanker? They make a split second decision and race to a fire. They're there within minutes - most of the time.

It's an amazing feat when you consider that the Park Rapids Fire Department's 26 volunteers leave their livelihoods and employers at a moment's notice to get to a fire scene, sometimes more than once a day. They average 75 to 100 calls annually.

"Twenty-five to 30 percent of these guys' employers actually pay the firefighters while they're on a call," fire chief Donn Hoffman said. "Many employers allow us to leave at our discretion."

Hoffman, an electrician, has been on the force 20 years. He's motivated by the public service aspect of the job, and says his fellow firefighters are, too.

"It's not about the money," Hoffman said. No kidding. They risk life and limb for $11.50 per hour when they're out on a call.

Every man on the squad is on call 24/7. But that doesn't mean they're cuffed to the ladder.

"You can't change your lifestyle because of it," Hoffman said. The men understand that not all of them can respond each and every time there's a fire call, and they're not expected to.

But they are expected to attend the twice-monthly meetings, in which they train and oversee business matters. Three missed meetings may result in a firefighter's appearance before the board to explain his absences.

Their shoestring annual budget, $175,000, comes mostly from contracts with 10 surrounding townships and the city of Park Rapids.

Large capital expenditures come from Park Rapids, which purchased their newest tanker truck. It hasn't arrived yet.

They're technically considered city employees but without benefits. They do have a pension plan, self-funded. Hoffman said it's good incentive to stay on the force. The average tenure is 20 years. He said there's little turnover.

Then there's Keith Gulbranson. At 73, he's been on the squad 44 years.

Gulbranson, in past years, has been assistant fire chief, but is content these days to just be one of the guys. They've encouraged him to stay on the department, and he's willing - and quite able.

"He's not your average senior citizen," Hoffman said.

It's a brotherhood that's recognizable at the fire hall.

"I like the camaraderie," Gulbranson said. "They're a good group of guys to work with." Gulbranson, who is referred to as "the old man" by his fellow men in red, said firefighters form tight bonds because "you depend on them and they depend on you."

Meeting nights they all pitch in, cleaning and inventorying their equipment and trucks. They kid each other.

City council member Pat Mikesh, who often appears shy and quiet on the council dais, becomes animated around a fire truck, chatting, tinkering and enjoying himself. He leaves his job at a propane company to rush to fires. So far, he hasn't had to rush out of a city meeting.

Gulbranson recalls a couple restaurant fires that were fierce blazes. One at the former Gilbert's restaurant in Park Rapids, remains under investigation.

Fires that may have complicated or suspicious causes are immediately turned over to state investigators, Hoffman said. His squad, while well-trained, doesn't conduct any arson investigations, he said. Those are best left for state fire marshals.

Fourteen of the squad are certified to conduct forcible entry, use ropes and knots, use "fire streams," manage fire suppression and conduct salvage and overhaul operations. The state doesn't require them to be certified.

Firefighters have bad days on the job like everyone else. Take Labor Day.

Volunteers were paged from their holiday plans early Monday afternoon. They were directed to a grass fire "west on Fish Hook Trail."

They sped down the road. Dead end. No fire.

They then headed down Fish Hook Road where they encountered a hilly gravel trail down to the cabin that reported a grass fire. They backed the trucks carefully out of the trail when they realized they had no turnaround room.

By then the owner had extinguished the blaze he started, burning brush on a 90-degree day with wind gusts topping 40 mph.

"You have to estimate the potential for how bad you need to be there," Hoffman said. "You're driving a quarter of a million dollar fire truck into a scene like that and if the damage is pretty minimal and it's a grass fire, you're not going to drive them in there.

"But if your house is down there and there's trouble, we're going to take them down there no matter what it takes," he said.

Although the crews didn't show their exasperation with the Labor Day situation, they admitted sometimes they have a hard time doing their jobs.

"I didn't get there in time to go with them, but I knew right where that fire was," Gulbranson said. "We've had cabin fires that it's been very difficult to get to. The roads are narrow and sometimes snow's a problem."

And although assigning addresses to Hubbard County residents has helped tremendously, firefighters still have challenges on privately owned and minimum maintenance roads.

Landowners who receive the blue address locator signs are required to turn in directions to their homes so emergency personnel can reach them when they need to, Hoffman said.

Sometimes those directions are sketchy, and occasionally there's a computer glitch, and an address might be incorrect.

On Labor Day, a "perfect storm" of complications descended on the crew. They had garbled radio transmissions, heavy radio traffic preventing them from contacting dispatchers to clarify directions and heavy traffic on the roads.

Hoffman's wish list includes a tanker with a computer, so firefighters on the road can view the same mapping screens dispatchers use to direct emergency crews out on the roads.

Technology may change the way firefighters do their jobs, but the human toll won't change.

"The things that stick in your mind are the bad accidents, seeing all those casualties," Gulbranson said quietly.