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Detroit Lakes volunteer firefighters commit themselves to serving the community

Relatively new firefighter Kregg Wolf sprays a tree with water during a controlled burn recently. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Being a Detroit Lakes volunteer firefighter requires guts, determination, willingness to help others, admiration of adrenaline rushes and a huge commitment.

According to Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Jeff Swanson, the Detroit Lakes Fire Department runs about 200 calls a year.

"We've been as high as 300," he said. "So that's getting where you're going on a call almost every other day."

Swanson ventured to say that the Detroit Lakes volunteer firefighters see more action than most larger cities' full-time firefighters do.

"My guys go to every fire," he said. "Those guys go to every third fire."

The expectations of a Detroit Lakes firefighter are lofty, too.

"We expect our people to make 50 percent of the fire calls as a minimum," Swanson said. "Most of our people make between 75 and 85 percent of the fire calls."

Vacation and time off is a strictly run matter. A firefighter must sign out if he's out of town for more than 24 hours. A leave of absence is another thing.

"There's got to be some guidelines there because of the commitment," he said. "We can't have 15 guys say 'Well, I want to take two years off' because of the training we have in. We have to maintain a firefighting level. It's very demanding."

Swanson said he doesn't like to have more than 10 firefighters -- out of the 30 volunteers -- out of town at one time, which poses some problems when vacation time comes around.

"Deer hunting used to be a free-for-all, and we lost everybody," he said. "When I became chief, we, as a department, put together a policy where we're on a rotation."

Of the three shifts, one shift must remain in town to man the fire department. The popular holiday rotation has since expanded to include deer hunting, Fourth of July and WE Fest weekend.

A volunteer firefighter does all that for a slim $1,000 annually, Swanson said.

"The $1,000 a year doesn't pay for the gas, the meals you've lost or the clothes you've ruined," he said. "It doesn't even start to cover it."

But once a firefighter performs his first job, according to Swanson, he's hooked.

"There's just something about it. It's awesome. It's an adrenaline rush."

He wouldn't go so far as to say a firefighter was addicted to that rush, however.

"An adrenaline junkie goes and jumps off a mountain for the fun. We do it because it needs to be done and the sidekick is the adrenaline," he said.

Several of Detroit Lakes Firefighter Nate Krump's non-firefighter friends are curious to know what it's like to fight a fire.

"The first one is scary as hell. It is scary," he said. "Then once you realize you're OK, you know what you're doing, you've been trained for this, you kick back and it's just 'don't react, just do.' You just do your job."

Krump, who is in his fourth year on the force, joined the Detroit Lakes Fire Department as a way of giving back to the community, his civic duty, but mostly because of his father, Rick.

"I joined the department because my dad and my uncle were both on the department," he said. "I grew up with the department. I knew all those guys; I've known them all my life. It's a great big family and I'm used to that big family aspect of the whole thing."

His father was very proud to have Nate on the fire department and fight fires side-by-side.

"It was so surreal the first time that I came down the hall and I get onto the truck and there's my dad sitting on the fire truck with me and we're going to a scene," Krump said. "My dad was very proud to have me around and able to fight some fires together."

Swanson is in his 24th year as Detroit Lakes fire chief. He said he plans on 2010 to be his last year as chief and to fully retire from the department in the summer of 2011.

In his years as chief, Swanson has seen many changes in the Detroit Lakes Fire Department. The equipment has come a long way since he joined the department in 1974. The department then used rubber coats, and air packs cost $200 each. Now, the firefighters' turn out gear is $1,800 for pants and the coat and air packs are about $6,000.

"The cost of the firefighting business is just insane," Swanson said.

The difference is a matter of safety.

"We go into pretty well-involved burning structures and put them out and we do it safely. Where back in the '70s, we did it, but we didn't do it safely," he said.

Swanson expects and demands only the best equipment for the firefighters.

"When guys are committing themselves on a volunteer basis, they can't have second-best equipment," he said.

Swanson described the current firefighters' training regiment as bizarre. Between weekly meetings, which are generally for training or equipment repair and maintenance, and mandated federal training, the Detroit Lakes firefighters are very rarely not practicing. The first several years of a firefighter's career are spent in training.

"It's one thing when it's a full-time guy, but when it's a volunteer trying to do a job and to have a home life, it's tough," he said.

Krump said the training he needed to put in the first few years wasn't exactly fun. Every week, he went through Tuesday night training, Wednesday night fire department meetings and Thursday night training classes.

"It was awful to have to put in that kind of time, but you get through it," he said.

Krump joined the force before he had his first child and admitted it was easier for him to go through all the training than other firefighters who had children or a pregnant wife at home.

The firefighters are kept going due to the support of the people in the fire district, Swanson said. The community backs most decisions made by the fire department, and they very rarely hear a complaint.

It's not a stretch to say that Swanson has seen a lot as Detroit Lakes fire chief. In nearly 35 years, he has been on thousands of fire and accident calls and seen sights the average person would never want to see. But the rewards far outweigh the costs.

"There's no better reward than the self-satisfaction of working a house fire and saving things," he said. "And in the same token, there's nothing worse than working a house fire and losing it.

"When I drive down the road and I meet people that I've been involved in their car accident and I've helped save their life, that person is walking the street today. There's no better reward."