On the front lines: Wadena firefighters battle more than just fires
The life of a fireman is never routine. Wadena Fire Chief Dean Uselman has been a member of the department for 34 years, and like some combat veterans, there are things he has experienced that he would like to forget. "I've seen some things I wou...
The life of a fireman is never routine.
Wadena Fire Chief Dean Uselman has been a member of the department for 34 years, and like some combat veterans, there are things he has experienced that he would like to forget.
"I've seen some things I would like to unsee," Uselman said. "There are images buried in my head that people shouldn't have to see."
Uselman is the Wadena Development Authority and Planning and Zoning Director during working hours. In his time with the fire department, he has also gone into a burning house to rescue two people. It may not be the same thing as Clark Kent turning into Superman, but then Uselman is not a comic book hero--he and the members of the Wadena Fire Department are the real deal.
As chief, Uselman knows all about the Wadena Fire Department. He is aware of the expense of the equipment, the difficulties connected with coming up with the operating funds, the pay and pensions firemen toil for and the human cost of responding to emergencies ranging from fires to accidents to missing persons.
It's a calling that a word like "routine" does not apply to easily.
"We typically have 40 to 45 calls per year," Uselman said. "On an average, it is one a week, but last year we had 60."
Having to deal with an emergency situation called in by a distraught person is generally the only clue these firefighters receive of what they have waiting for them. One 911 call can send them virtually blind into a life and death situation.
It might be a report of a car fire but on the way to the fire the firemen might find out the car is parked in a garage. Suddenly, it's a completely different dynamic.
"Things can change so fast before you're even there," Assistant Chief Dale Haman said.
Of the emergency situations Haman has encountered in the last few months, the one stuck in his head happened the night before the 2017 firearm deer hunting season.
A November rain turned highways icy as night approached and the Wadena Fire Department was called to a vehicle accident on Highway 10. Hamann and one of the rookies of the department took on the detail of directing traffic onto Highway 75. In the gathering darkness the stream of traffic rushed right at the two firefighters.
"Cars were not slowing down and stopping, and I had one of our new people with me and I kept telling her to get back, don't be standing out on the highway because if they can't stop you are going to be sitting out there," Haman said. "We were kind of trying to use our truck as protection if something happened, and it did."
Hamann recalls having to push himself away from a car as it passed him. The car slid into the front of the fire department's grass rig. By the time it was over, six cars had piled up.
"That's probably the closest I have been to being injured or killed on a fire scene because people were not paying attention to their surroundings, not obeying the lights, not slowing down enough," Haman said.
Haman remembers the new firefighter who was with him had to also dodge traffic that evening.
"I think she was pretty shook up," Haman said. "It was pretty quiet on the way back to the firehall."
Uselman and Haman both sing the praises of the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing - a session after an emergency call that only firemen who have been on the scene are called on to attend. The debriefing is a talking session in which a situation is replayed. Firemen use it express their feelings and concerns about how they have handled a situation. Out of the debriefings come plans and ideas for handling similar emergencies in a better way.
Brent Johnson is the department's fire marshal. Johnson is especially busy during Fire Prevention Month educating kids on the dangers of fire and how to prevent them.
"We basically get $12 an hour," Johnson said. "Being a firefighter is a little different, but it's a way for us to give back to the community.
There isn't a person in the department that doesn't do it to help other people."
Johnson is not unmindful of the cost of being a fireman to their employers.
"The employers are probably the most overlooked part of this," Johnson said. "Our employers probably put up with a lot."
So why do these men and women keep serving?
"We're not doing it for the money, it's not about the money," Uselman said. "It's wanting to help the community. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to help someone when they're in trouble."