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Fairmont firefighters could use a hand

FAIRMONT — More than 18,000, over 90 percent, of the 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota are volunteers, giving the state the second-highest percentage of volunteer firefighters in the country.

The Fairmont firefighters are part of this elite group. Normally, they carry a full contingent of 32, but their current roster stands at 28, creating openings for four new hires. Although there currently are no female members of the Fairmont firefighters, the hiring process is open to both men and women.

Applications are available at City Hall and must be completed and returned by 4:30 p.m. Aug. 21.

Hiring a new member for the Fairmont Fire Department is a multi-level process that includes testing, meetings and interviews, according to Roger Carlson, treasurer and a 45-year-member of the organization.

“There’s a series of meetings including one that we refer to as the spousal or significant other meeting,” he said. “We don’t want a person to apply and have a significant other that is totally left in the dark and doesn’t understand the amount of time involved. We want to make sure the whole family is aware of what is involved.”

Then there’s a general aptitude test, physical testing, an oral interview, all evaluated on a point system. A hiring committee comprised of officers and members of the Fairmont firefighters evaluates each applicant’s performance and makes the hiring decision.

“After that, they need to have a physical and background check,” Carlson said. “It’s a pretty thorough process, but it’s set up more or less by state guidelines.”

And that’s just the beginning.

“It’s quite grueling process for the first couple of years. There’s 170 hours of training that has to be accomplished before they can actually enter a structure fire. They can still go on calls, just not inside.”

The training consists of four-hour classes a couple of nights a week and usually starts in December or January and finishing in April or May. After completing this training, the new hires must pass a written test by the state certification board.

But there’s more.

“For Fairmont, we require our firefighters to do either EMT or First Responder training within the first two years too, and that’s another 48 hours or so,” Carlson said. “There’s a lot of training involved initially.”

After the initial training blitz, the education is ongoing. Fairmont firefighters meet on Wednesday nights three times per month. The first and third Wednesdays are designated as training drills, with the second Wednesday reserved for conducting business.

Fairmont has “paid-on-call” firefighters, meaning they receive an hourly rate for fire and rescue calls as well as training hours. They respond to about 150 calls per year, averaging about three per week. Firefighters are required to participate in at least 30 percent of the calls to remain on the department.

Members carry pagers so they basically are always on call when they are in the area.

“When we have a call, we know that we’re not going to get everybody there,” Carlson said. “Some people might be gone. Some might be tied up at a job that they simply can’t leave at that moment.

“But very seldom do we feel we’re running short staffed, and if we need additional help, we can always call the other towns around.”

There are nine fire departments in Martin County that work together in what is called the Middle Nine Mutual Aid Association. If a department needs assistance, for whatever reason, it can rely on the other departments to answer the call. Additionally, the towns of Jackson, Alpha, Winnebago, Blue Earth and Lewisville have joined the mutual aid association.

Fairmont also has mutual aid agreements with Swea City and Armstrong because of the bordering territories.

Firefighters do much more than put out fires. While the department does not provide ambulance service to the community, it does provide assistance to the ambulance for vehicle accidents in addition to severe weather watch, lift assists and other capacities as requested. They are trained in grain bin rescue, water rescue, vehicle accident and extrication, hazardous materials, trench rescue, high-level rescue and other situations.

Most firefighters spend 20 years in service before retiring, making Carlson and his lengthy tenure an anomaly among his peers. When they do retire, they qualify for a pension courtesy of the state and insurance customers.

“Minnesota is unique in that it allocates 2 percent of the fire insurance premiums paid in the state to fire departments so firefighters can have a pension plan,” Carlson said. “The state collects the money and then divides it up according to the property valuations in each fire department’s community so it varies greatly.”

Those who choose to join a fire department usually don’t make the decision for financial reasons but to answer the call of community service.

“Being a firefighter is very rewarding, helping others and protecting property in the community,” Carlson said. “It is truly a camaraderie as we are like an extended family for our members. We trust each other with our lives in many instances.

“As the saying goes: Firefighters run into burning buildings that everyone else runs out of.”

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