The camaraderie and the fun and hard times quickly tumbled out of retired Fire Chief Dean Uselman and retired firefighter Brad Ellingworth’s mouths as to memories of the fire department. For Uselman, April will mark 36 years and for Ellingworth, 30 years have been completed. The memories have stuck as the years have passed, even numbers and locations.
The two know how many SCBA masks the fire department first had, four, and that the number then increased to 13 before having 20, one for each person. “We thought we had a cat by the tail, we had 13 out of 20 guys,” Ellingworth said. Uselman added, “You might get to use a clean mask.”
Joining the fire department
When Ellingworth first began with the fire department, he delivered water and snacks as well as set up and cleaned up chairs at the annual Turkey Bingo fundraiser as a 10 year old. And he continued doing so until he became a firefighter.
“Through that there was guys there that, ‘You need to get on the department. You should get on the department. We need you. You live in town,’” Ellingworth said. “So they kept hounding me enough until … there was an opening and I applied and got on that way.”
With encouragement from the community to join, Ellingworth became involved in everything from janitor to secretary as well as all the jobs in between that needed completing. Uselman noted how he was “very” active. All the activity doesn’t stop Ellingworth from remembering the day he got on the fire department, though.
“You’ll start out, and Dean could attest to this, that you think, ‘I’m going to get on the fire department and be a firefighter’ and all of a sudden it’s 30 years later and you’re like where did the time go?,” Ellingworth said.
Uselman joins in on the questioning, “Well, where did it go?”
Ellingworth and Uselman remain sensitive to those who have experienced fires. For Uselman, this is part of the reason he became a firefighter. His and his wife’s house caught on fire on Feb. 29, 1984.
“We were awoken to the sounds of crackling and we, fortunately, we woke up and it was a miserably cold night. It was way below zero and I didn’t think the fire was as bad as it was,” Uselman said. “It’s just one of those things I’ll never forget. I remember so many things vividly. Sam Waln was on the first truck on the scene and … as other firefighters were coming behind him, … he … mentioned or yelled to the other firefighters, ‘It’s already coming through the roof.’”
Before the firefighters arrived, Uselman tried to put the fire out but did not understand the full extent of the fire. He received steam burns and blisters and went to the hospital for three or four days. The following April, Uselman was asked to join the fire department.
“I remember how these guys pitched in and helped us and so I just I thought this is a great thing to be able to help people when they are at the bottom, when they … have nowhere else to go, you’re there for them,” Uselman said.
Risks of the firefighter position
While the firefighters are supporting and caring for community members, fellow firefighters also watch over their families. If kids were in the fire hall, a fellow firefighter would take care of them if their parent was responding to a call, according to Uselman. Some firefighters over the years have also been in the National Guard and deployed to the Middle East, so firefighters would again step in for their families, even coming to chop firewood, according to Uselman and Ellingworth.
“I don’t think there’s a person on the department that wouldn’t do anything for any of the other people on the department … and that’s important when you are on the end of the hose going into a burning building you got to know that and be comfortable that the people on the outside have your back, you know, if something goes bad, they’re going to get you out of there,” Uselman said.
The risk aspects of the firefighting position, from putting out fires to car accidents, are what Uselman said are “inherent” to the job. Safety aspects, such as the SCBA masks, have improved in his and Ellingworth’s time. A fire that Uselman remembers from when he first started was at the county garage where “there’s all kinds of things that are just nasty when they burn and give off terrible things.”
“I was up on the roof, we had to ventilate the building to get the smoke and heat out, so I was up on the roof cutting a hole and when we opened it up, I got a couple of breaths of the smoke that was coming out and I got dizzy,” Uselman said. “I got off the roof with help and to the ground.”
The result was smoke inhalation and a hospital stay of three days. The chemicals and the carcinogens inside them were part of this result, according to Uselman. Currently, the MnFIRE Hometown Heroes program is hoping to support firefighters with funding from the state. The support is for issues of cardiac arrest, cancer and emotional trauma that firefighters experience at high rates, according to Uselman. Ellingworth and Uselman have seen community residents and the city council support them as safety measures need to be paid for.
The coping with these events is imperative, according to Uselman and Ellingworth, who have seen things they wish they could forget. When a call comes in late at night or early in the morning, Uselman said firefighters are likely to stay after the incident and talk with one another about what they have seen and experienced.
“They say that joy shared is multiplied and sadness shared is divided, and that is a truth,” Uselman said.
Fires, tornado memories from careers
One of the big fires the two remember is a fire started by arson at the Wool Growers warehouse on Hwy 10 by John’s Car Care. The old wood building burnt a “long time” and caused ashes to fly towards other homes, according to Ellingworth. The thermal currents from the heat also brought lumber and cinders hundreds of feet into the air before landing near the gas station, according to Uselman.
“That one sticks in my mind pretty regularly just because … I was only on a couple of years and that big of a building and shutting down the railroad tracks for how many hours and the gas stations right across the street,” Ellingworth said.
The shocking devastation of the 2010 tornado came as an event that needed a long-term response, one local firefighters quickly participated in. While Ellingworth was fishing when the call eventually came in, Uselman was working in the city administrative building and did not realize the extent of the damage until another firefighter put the sirens on one of the fire department’s engines. He went out on the first truck and began looking for people trapped, missing or needing medical attention as well as for any fires.
“I was just totally shocked. I could see where the pool used to be, it was just a big fountain of water going up into the air from the water main that had been broken off. The whole building was gone, the school was all twisted and out of shape and houses were destroyed and pieces of buildings were everywhere,” Uselman said.
Throughout the response there were 56 fire departments and 37 ambulances and three to four helicopters on the ready, according to Uselman and Ellingworth. The fire department responded to calls about gas smells and ran out of equipment to clamp the valves closed, and as they went to different homes the landmarks were gone. The houses and street signs were simply not there or covered by debris.
“Where is that street at in the middle of the night?,” Ellingworth said.
With thankfulness that no one was killed, Uselman said “It could have been so bad.” And after being Fire Chief for only four months at that point it was a “baptism by fire.”
Preparing for retirement
In his last year, Ellingworth stopped attending every meeting and drill and began preparing for his retirement at the start of January 2020.
“I kind of took it easy. I kind of sat back and did things that I just plain never did, I was always at meetings, I was always at drills, I was always here. … I kind of was working my way out,” Ellingworth said. “Partially kind of one of them bittersweet things, you’re glad to be done yet you’re not, kind of like a little burnout but yet you’re not.”
He also pulled back from the many duties he had taken on, which fellow department members are slowly realizing, according to Uselman.
“I did a lot of things in the department over the years that even today I’m getting calls from guys, ‘What do we do to this? How do we do that?’ I was I don’t know maybe I’ll toot my own horn here but I did a lot of things that a lot of guys didn’t,” Ellingworth said.
As retirement from the fire department sets in, Ellingworth commented on how hard it was to write the resignation letter, harder than from his real job he presumes. And of course the differences in how his time is filled.
“It’s a little different sitting at home more nights than coming to the fire hall. I mean it’s … like Tom Reger did when they asked him what are you going to miss and what are you going to not miss about being a firefighter? He said, ‘I’m going to miss the guys and I’m going to miss the camaraderie with the guys but I’m not going to miss that 30 below zero fire at 2:30 in the morning.’ And we laughed at him when he said it. It’s very true,” Ellingworth said.
While Uselman is no longer Fire Chief, he remains active with the department, and along with Ellingworth doesn’t know what the future holds for him.
“I don’t know, I probably will have to pull the plug one of these days but I don’t know when,” Uselman said.
Maybe Uselman will retire when he has saved a cat out of a tree. Ellingworth and Uselman have saved cats and dogs from burning homes, and “Didn’t we save a snake?” Ellingworth excitedly asked Uselman, to which the answer was yes.
“Never got called to take a cat out of a tree,” Uselman said. “Bummer is right, that’s why I’m staying on.” And as Ellingworth laughs, Uselman jokingly says, “I’m not getting out of this department until we get called to get a cat in the tree.” Here at the Pioneer Journal, we will wait for the call to come.