By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN The Cokato Fire Department recently had three firefighters retire after years of dedicated service Mike Holmquist, who served 36 years; Kelvin Nelson, who served 33 years; and Randy Lundeen, who served 25 years.
Nelson and Holmquist were both inspired to join the department through volunteering and the satisfaction of helping others.
Lundeen’s interest started at a young age, when he would visit his dad at a furniture store located where the Save and Share Thrift Shop is currently stationed. A fireman was employed at the store, and Lundeen remembers hearing his pager go off.
“Sometimes they’d let me hold open the door,” Lundeen stated. “And I watched him come out of the [fire station] barn.”
Serving an understanding community
Throughout the years, the Cokato Fire Department has experienced support from its fellow community members.
“We’re so fortunate to have so many [firefighters] around during the day,” noted Nelson, recognizing how cooperative local employers are in allowing the firemen to leave work and be at the station.
“They understand,” added Holmquist.
The men shared that some communities often do not have any firefighters on hand when a call comes in, because they are working their other jobs.
Church families have also played a supportive role for the firefighters.
“Whenever the pagers would go off [during a worship service], they’d always say a prayer for you,” said Lundeen.
Over time, the types of situations the firemen respond to have changed significantly. Nelson stated that the department used to get calls for 20 chimney fires each winter. Now it does not get any.
They attribute this change to people turning over to electrical or gas heating, rather than wood.
In spite of this, the number of calls the department receives each year has remained consistent. “[Now] it’s more medical,” noted Holmquist, along with accidents and alarms.
Being called to a scene certainly has some challenges, however, since the responders know many community members.
“Honestly, you go through a checklist of where your kids are at, who you know, whose house are we going to,” Lundeen commented.
“We don’t want anything bad to happen, but if it does, we want to be there,” he added.
For Nelson, however, this is the only downside to the job.
“The one thing that I was always impressed with [was]: 24 guys with quite different backgrounds, when that pager went off, how well we worked as a team,” he stated.
Each of the department members have their own niches. Everyone knows who to turn to for the tasks that need to get done.
“We’re pretty aggressive. We put the fire out,” said Lundeen.
He remembered there once being a basement fire, which he described as always being scary due to the limited escape routes.
“There’s no way out except the way you came in,” Holmquist commented.
The firemen successfully extinguished the fire, and when entering the first floor, they found the owners dogs, who were OK.
For the men, there is a great sense of accomplishment if they are able to save a house, but sometimes the damage is enough to leave them in awe.
Seeing the wreckage of the 1992 tornado was one of those instances.
That night, Nelson was analyzing the damage with a flashlight, and remembers his beam suddenly catching that the roof on the First Baptist Church, which back then was at the current location of Elim Mission Church, was missing.
Holmquist remembers it lying in the street.
It was almost eerie, “seeing how different the town looked when daylight came,” stated Nelson.
The men worked on cleaning the town for two straight days.
Balancing the home life
While the firefighters had to leave their families to answer the calls that came in, they were able to bring them along for some of the calmer duties.
For truck-checks, they would often bring their children with, who climbed over the vehicle as the firemen completed the routine. They also tagged along for trips to get gas, and took joy rides in the fire engines.
“You still go down [to the station] Thursdays, during truck-checks, and they still have their kids along,” commented Lundeen.
Local children enjoy visiting the station for tours, which the men find to be beneficial, as the kids can see the firefighters in uniform and learn they are not scary, but are there to help.
A way of life
For firefighters and their families, the job becomes a lifestyle.
“You don’t realize how much it is in the back of your brain,” Lundeen said.
“You lay out clothes in case you have to get up during the night long johns if it’s winter back the car into the driveway to make it safer and faster [to leave], wondering, ‘Am I going to be tired at work the next day?’ You don’t even realize you’re doing it,” he added.
However, this way of life seems to be dwindling in small towns, remarked Nelson.
“People aren’t volunteering like they used to,” he explained.
One reason for this is the increase in required training hours, about 180, which makes it difficult for individuals with families to commit.
Another reason is that emerging generations seem to be more on the move.
“[Before] if they were from town, worked in town, or owned a home in town, it was a safe bet they were going to stick around,” Nelson continued. “They’re more mobile now.”
Nelson, Holmquist, and Lundeen said they would certainly encourage anyone inclined to join the department to do so.
“If anyone’s thinking about it, do it,” stated Lundeen, saying there is a great sense of satisfaction that comes with the job.
“Crawling back into bed, cold and tired, but you did it. You did good,” he said.
Though “your wife would make you shower first,” Holmquist added.