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Longtime DL fire chief to retire

Twenty-six years ago, Detroit Lakes firefighters responded to a downtown fire where the crew was battling a large blaze on three different levels of the former Linderud variety store building.

Because the fire was so aggressive, then-assistant fire chief Jeff Swanson ordered firefighters to get out, but one of the guys criticized him for that decision.

"As he was chewing me out, the building collapsed," Swanson recalled. "Had I not pulled people out, I probably would've lost six firefighters in that building."

More than a quarter of a century later, now the Detroit Lakes fire chief says he's never lost a firefighter and cannot remember a fire fatality in all of the year's he's been leading the department.

After serving on the fire department for 37 years with 25 years as the chief, he's now ready to step down.

"I love the job, but I think it's time to take some of the pressure away," Swanson said.

His plans to retire have been in the works for the past four years. He'll be stepping down at the end of the year and handing over the job to assistant fire chief Dave Baer in January.

Baer is one of the few who expressed interest in the title, so Swanson has been getting him ready and acclimated over the past few years.

"He has all the skills and qualities to become the chief," Swanson said.

'Yes, sir. No, sir'

What makes a firefighter a chief is assertiveness, strong leadership and continual training. Swanson hasn't only been the head of the department; he's been like a father to his crew.

The 30-person Detroit Lakes Fire Department is like a military operation out on the field, but one big family when the job is done.

In all the years Swanson has been the chief, he said things haven't always been rosy, the crew has seen some rocky times.

"But yet when the pager goes off and we go to a structure fire, you can be sitting in this room fighting one minute, and have a structure fire and all of a sudden it's like 'yes, sir, no, sir,'" Swanson said.

They went from responding to about 100 calls to an average of 225 calls a year. The growing demand now takes a tremendous amount of commitment from the various age groups who volunteer for the department.

"We're way busier than we were back in 1976," Swanson said.

Protecting victims

After responding to thousands of calls as a firefighter and first responder, one of the things Swanson has been training his crew to be careful with is treating victims with respect.

He recalls a two-vehicle fatal crash where he was determined to protect the victims' rights and not have their deceased bodies exposed to the public.

Firefighters and other agencies responding to the crash formed "a human wall" while trying to extricate the victims -- a pregnant woman, a baby and a 3-year-old boy, he explained.

"It really upset the people who were trying to watch because there was probably 100 people watching," Swanson said. "People didn't need to see it."

It's accidents like those that leave vivid but disheartening memories in Swanson's mind, and all other firefighters for that matter.

"The losses, the deaths you deal with are very hard -- especially when it's younger people," he said in a softer voice. "And you see a lot of deaths in the fire service."

However, on a more uplifting note, he added:

"There isn't anything better than a good fire save or a good rescue when you save a life," Swanson said. "You can't put a price on it."

Which is why he's been serving on the department since the age of 20 when former fire chief Wallace Schultz encouraged him to join. He hesitated at first, but other firefighters talked him into it as well.

"I don't know if they saw something they liked ... after I got on, they wished they didn't have me," he joked.


During his career as fire chief, Swanson earned recognitions that have kept in him contact with hundreds of other fire departments from all over the state.

He was the first volunteer department chief to get elected as president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, serving until 2002.

The six-year tour allowed him to be a vice president for two years, president for another two, and then the chief of the board for the final two years.

Swanson is still a member of the board as a past president. He also earned a second re-appointment this summer by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to the Board of Firefighter Training and Education.

Next year, he may still be part of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, but not the governor's-appointed board.

Being on the boards has helped Swanson keep in touch with other fire departments, large and small, some responding to double the number of calls, therefore getting more on-the-job experience.

"When you're that involved, you've sort of got your fingers on the pulse," he said.

And as one of a handful of selected individuals on the Board of Firefighter Training and Education, Swanson has been a part of a group that improves fire service training and secures additional funding.

Time to relax

Swanson plans to remain on the Detroit Lakes Fire Department as a firefighter after stepping down as the chief for at least six months before deciding if he will completely retire or not next summer.

"Most likely I'll retire from the department at that time, but I'm not gonna commit to that yet," he said.

With a full-time job, a family and at least 20 hours a week just being the chief not counting calls, the co-owner of Swanson Repair, Inc. has hardly found time to do things just for fun, although being a firefighter has been sort of his hobby.

"That's why I love it so much," he added. "Other guys like to fish or do this and do that, to me fighting fire has always been a hobby of mine."

So what's he going to do with all his free time after retiring?

"Oh, I've got stuff to do," he said with a laugh.