Veteran firefighters say farewell
BY Sarah smith
One hundred seventeen years of experience is leaving the Park Rapids Fire Department this winter.
The retirement of four veterans – Randy McFarren, Larry Kruft, Tim Little and Jeff Green – leaves a monumental hole in the workforce that will be hard to replace.
Chief Donn Hoffman said the search is underway for new recruits, but he will nevertheless miss the personalities that are bidding adieu.
He has an easy rapport with the four men, who all preceded him in years on the force.
“I was a wild kid when I first started here,” McFarren said of how the force matured him.
Kruft and Little talk of the civic pride they received through their service.
“People still come up to me and say, ‘thank you,’” Little said, a trace of surprise in his voice.
Green was not available for the interview Wednesday night.
They are particularly touched by the kids they visited in schools. They led an anti-fire program for kindergartners through fourth graders.
They remember turning those fourth graders loose with the admonishment that “they are now in charge of their family safety in a fire,” something the children took to heart.
Kids to this day even repeat the safety lessons they learned decades ago.
McFarren is perhaps the best known of the bunch with 35 years under his belt.
“Dad wasn’t going to retire until I got on the department in 1979,” he said. “It still took him three years to go,” he laughed.
It’s a hard job to leave, all three men said, and they no doubt will answer the call for a while to come.
McFarren served as chief from 1996 to 2006 and assistant chief for six years after that.
He said he’ll continue to represent the department at the annual fall open house and picnic, where he delights in igniting air bags to demonstrate how pressurized they are. He’s like the proverbial kid in the candy store.
And he’ll keep his day job, working the service department at Thielen Motors in Park Rapids. Between the two gigs, he knows everybody in the county and surrounding countryside.
He is a self-described renegade. Unlike most of the other firefighters, he claims no family ties to the department and is leaving no descendants on the force.
Firefighting is famous for its family ties and generations of young people following the call.
In his 27 years Kruft has served as a training officer and on the department’s relief association.
He still works next door to the fire hall at a gas service company, where he, too, plans to keep his day job.
He laughs that he still has the keys to the building and can enter as he pleases.
Kruft has a deep sense of civic pride that the job instilled in him, and he worries that some young people don’t have that same sense of commitment. He worries about the recruiting process.
Young people move around, he said. They don’t have the lifelong ties he and his compatriots shared.
And he worries about the dedication factor. Being a volunteer firefighter takes dedication.
A city employee, he leaves the department with two sons on the force, but he, too finds it difficult to hang up his boots.
He started 24 years ago, after his dad had served 19 years.
His expertise in city projects and the labyrinthine of pipework underneath the sidewalks is invaluable, Hoffman said. And the chief couldn’t promise that he won’t occasionally tap into Little’s expertise.
Little has served as secretary of the department 18 years. Following in the steps of his father. He pulls out the old record books, in which firefighters sign in to a particular emergency. He pulls out 1983 for a quick reference. There is the history of the department, in neat handwriting.
Owns his own hardwood flooring business. He has 30 years of experience on the force and intentionally waited until that milestone to retire. He, too, has been a training officer and safety officer. And he has served as assistant chief.
He is a state certified instructor and he specializes in breathing gear, a crucial item for all firefighters. Just as the crew has seen advances in equipment, breathing apparatus has seen a similar market transformation.
They remember the big fires, the old World of Christmas full of stuff, for lack of a better word for the inventory. They also remember the old Jones Funeral Home fire - fires that got hot and burned forever.
But they also remember last year’s Green Valley Fire, which scorched 7,100 acres throughout the region. The cause has never been announced publicly although many believe it was set by careless humans.
Green said he recently heard that new aerial video shows the fire ahead of the people believed responsible for it, so that is causing firefighters to rethink their position.
The men all shake their heads at the recollection of the fire that caused dozens of local and state firefighters to converge on the scene for days as gale-force winds drove flames away from most of the personnel assembled to quell it.
“It was traveling that fast,” Green remarked.
They marvel at the equipment and education involved in today’s firefighting and showed pictures of firefighters dressed in jeans with hip wader type firefighting boots on.
One photo is of a young Jeff Green sacked out under a tree, fast asleep with his gear on.
“That was a rough day,” McFarren remarked gazing at the photo.
Training, when they started, was kept to a minimum and they rushed out and learned on the job.
Grass fires, like Green Valley, they learned how to fight working with the DNR.
Miraculously, no fire personnel were lost on the job during their tenure.
“We never lost a child,” McFarren said. “Never lost anybody in a fire” in recent times.
McFarren praises the orderly way firefighters are trained and certified today. But he also worries that the rigors of training, certifying and recertifying could scare off able recruits.
The commitment is hefty, they all agree.
“They don’t want to make the commitment,” Kruft observed.
The men talk of the “curve balls” fires have thrown them and how much construction standards have eliminated those surprises.
The old balloon construction of homes is gone, they said. Now homes and buildings must have fire stops between floors. Before, a fire would escape one floor and take off to the heavens without barricade of some sort.
But more poisons are contained in the materials used to construct both homes and furniture, the men say.
“The worst thing we fight out there is car fires,” Little said.
Then talk turns to the car crashes and fatalities.
“You never forget one and it never goes away,” Little said, shaking his head.
Kruft recalls hosing off a fire victim until the deceased man was able to be moved.
What are they going to miss?
“Everything,” they say in unison.
They have fond memories of the old firemen’s balls at the old Armory. They even had live bands.
“I still plan on doing fire prevention as long as I can,” said McFarren. “You’ve got to catch those little minds when they’re young.
“They know who we are and what we’ve done,” McFarren said.
“They know we were out there doing out the best we can with what we got,” Little said.
And they laugh about the retirement letters they’re getting ready to pen.
“We always accept them with regrets,” McFarren laughs.
And although they joke that today’s recruits “are not as good as us,” each man is keenly interested in making sure the department is on solid footing as they pursue retirement.