By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN After fighting fires for 37 years and 5 months, Cokato firefighter Keith “Skip” Asfeld hung up his helmet April 1 and began a life of retirement.
He also retired from his job at Xcel Energy around that time, where he had been employed for 31 years.
Asfeld joined the fire department in 1980, after his employer at Cokato Implement (John Deere), Ray Kaczmarek, retired from the Cokato Fire Department after 20 years of service.
“[Kaczmarek] said they’re looking for a good man to replace [him], and so I supposed I could apply,” recalled Asfeld.
A huge plus in having replaced his employer was that Kaczmarek knew how the life of a firefighter is.
“He didn’t have any issues with me taking off from work and fighting fires,” stated Asfeld. “So, I tried to be involved as much as I could [showing up to] calls, fires, whatever,” all while raising three kids.
“[It was] a full life with work, [family], and the fire department,” said Asfeld.
But the potential for more responsibilities arrived when Asfeld became fire chief in 1992 a position he said he’d only do for five years, but stayed on for six.
“It’s a tough position, because it’s a lot of work and [well,] you’re not doing it for the money,” he said while chuckling.
Asfeld said his most memorable experience with the department happened during his first year as chief, when a tornado ripped through Cokato.
“I went, like, four or five days with very little sleep,” Asfeld shared, adding that the old fire barn had served as a base for all the volunteers who had assisted with the cleanup, including the National Guard, the American Red Cross, and people from at least 10 states.
“[The tornado came through on] a Tuesday night, and by Saturday at noon, we had the whole town cleaned up,” said Asfeld.
While he was serving as chief, Asfeld said there were two previous fire chiefs still on the department, and that each chief (including those who came after him) approaches the position with a specific objective they want to achieve. For Asfeld, that goal was getting more trucks for the department.
“I think we got three trucks during [those six years I was chief],” Asfeld commented.
He added, “I was on, I think, every truck committee since I was chief. Every truck that’s out [in the fire barn], I was on that committee.”
One of the goals the whole department had been working toward the past 10 years was obtaining a new fire station, a goal it achieved at the beginning of the year.
“I wasn’t leaving until we had a new station,” shared Asfeld. “That was big.”
Progressing with the equipment
One of the most apparent changes Asfeld has seen within the department is the advancement of equipment, from the quality of the boots (no longer suffering from sore feet), to the air packs (lightening up from 32 pounds to 18 pounds), to the helmets (used to be plastic, which would sometimes melt in a fire), to the trucks (increasing in size and capability).
Asfeld remembers a particular training incident he and Mike Holmquist went through back when the firefighter jackets were made of black rubber.
“The black coats got so hot, when we came out of the fire [Mike and I] both had blisters on our shoulders,” said Asfeld. “If you had the equipment we have today, you wouldn’t have even known it was hot or at least you wouldn’t have realized how hot it [really] was.”
The previous fire barn had also been fairly new when Asfeld joined the department, and he has seen the required number of training hours increase from about 20 to 200, and the transition from landline fire calls to pagers to cell phones.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he commented.
One of the primary means the department has been able to afford this advanced equipment is through pull tabs (charitable gambling), which the department started looking into the year after Asfeld resigned as chief.
Through it, Asfeld estimates the department has purchased close to $1 million of equipment. He served as president of the Volunteer Firefighter Relief Association approximately 15 years, which meant he was in charge of writing the checks, and knew how the program worked.
“[It’s] all state-watched,” he explained. “You can’t do anything with that money unless the state says it’s alright. And we get audited every year there, so they look at every penny you spend in those years.”
More recently, Asfeld has helped the department raise funds through calendar sales, which allowed the department to purchase a used ladder truck (valued at $500,000, purchased for less than $20,000).
The truck has provided aid in Cokato, as well as two or three times in Dassel and twice in Howard Lake, “because nobody else has got [a ladder truck].”
“That was one of my biggest involvements with the fire department,” said Asfeld. “Yeah, I was putting fires out, but trying to find funding, [that was my thing].”
More than a department
Although he will no longer be responding to any emergency calls, Asfeld said he still considers the Cokato Fire Department to be his family.
“[With] the fire department, everyone is family,” he said. “You can agree to disagree, but when it’s all said and done, you’re family.” And that goes for the previous retirees and the firefighters’ spouses, too.
One of Asfeld’s favorite “family” activities was participating in water ball contests in nearby communities.
“We were so competitive. It was either first place or nothing,” he recalled, adding that the department’s competitive side carried over to fighting fires as well.
“We want to put that fire out the fastest way we can, the safest way we can, and the smartest way we can,” he elaborated, “and that’s all instilled in everybody who joins the fire department.”
Asfeld said it was also fun watching some of the more competitive firefighters try to outdo one another in terms of how many calls or fires they show up to.
Ultimately, however, it’s about being there in the best way possible for each other in both the good times and bad.
“I hope the fire station keeps being competitive, like it’s always been,” Asfeld stated. “[And] I just wish everybody good luck on the fire department. Like I said, they’re my family.”