Finding the stories of the fallen Minnesota firefighters

Since 1892, 207 Minnesota firefighters have died in the line of duty. These are the known deaths, at least.

The Minnesota Fire Service Foundation and one particular Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department staff member wants more than a list of names. They want to tell the stories of these firefighters and family members who were left behind so that everyone is properly honored.
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Shannon Ryder, standards technician for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department, over the past year-and-a-half has researched the stories of the 207 known Minnesota fallen firefighters, dating back to 1892, so the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation can put together a book to honor them and their families. Photo by Eric Hagen

Shannon Ryder, standards technician for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department, over the past year-and-a-half has researched the stories of the 207 known Minnesota fallen firefighters, dating back to 1892, so the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation can put together a book to honor them and their families. Photo by Eric Hagen

“It’s all about trying to help them heal and to try to record the history,” said SBM Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund.

Shannon Ryder, standards technician for the SBM Fire Department, is finding these stories so they can be published in a book commemorating the fallen firefighters. Every family will get one book for free and have the option to purchase additional books, which will defray the printing costs, Ryder said.

Some families are sharing so many stories and photos that not everything will get into the book. One page is going to be dedicated to each firefighter. Extra material will be available on the MNFireServiceFoundation.org website.

The stories Ryder has heard have helped shape the stories of firefighters when they were off-duty. When Jerry Allen Reed was a volunteer for the Deer River Fire Department, his daytime job was with the Minnesota Department of Transportation doing highway maintenance. He loved the outdoors. Photos show him hunting, on his snowmobile and running. He died in 1990 after he collapsed while on a hose line.

Unfortunately, Ryder assumes not all stories will be told. Large urban departments like Minneapolis and St. Paul have shared information for years about fallen firefighters, but there are likely gaps in reporting, especially for the small, rural fire departments considering how long ago some of these firefighters died.

What is considered a “line of duty death” has also changed. For example, a firefighter who dies of a heart attack on the job has been considered a line of duty death by state law since 2002, Ryder said.

Some fire chiefs told her about people not on the list of fallen firefighters that Ryder had and commented that they would have been included today. Ryder and the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation then had the difficult task of doing more research to determine if that person belonged on the list.

“I am positive the rural departments have line of duty deaths that we’ll never know about,” Ryder said. “I’m sure that not every name will be honored the way they should be, but I’m dedicated to do the best I can.”

The goal is to have the book completed by Sept. 29, 2013 when the second annual Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial honor ceremony takes place, Zikmund said.

How Ryder got involved

Zikmund is one of nine representatives on the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation Board, which organized the creation of the new Fallen Firefighter Memorial on the State Capitol grounds that was dedicated Sept. 30.

When this group was working on the memorial, it was well aware that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation puts together a book each year to honor fallen firefighters. As people began sending stories and photos to the Minnesota board, “it became a no brainer” that a book honoring the fallen Minnesota heroes would be a good idea, Zikmund said.

Ryder’s involvement was going to be verifying the line of duty deaths. The state fire service board had a list of known fallen firefighters, but there were instances when names were misspelled, or the days or years of death were incorrect.

She became personally hooked to this project when she started contacting the families to verify information. While some were thrilled about the idea of a book recognizing fallen Minnesota firefighters, others were angry and some did not care, Ryder said.

Ryder began feeling a personal responsibility to stay in contact with these families and keep gathering as much information as they wanted to share.

“Once I got sucked into that I didn’t want to leave these families again because I feel like they felt they were already left because we never did anything for these families as a fire service,” Ryder said.

Before the fallen firefighters memorial came to the State Capitol grounds, the only memorial was in the baggage claim area of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport that many people were unaware of, Ryder said.

Ryder has used many investigative strategies to find information for this book. It used to be a lot easier to find people when everybody was listed in the phone book, but with so many people just having cell phone numbers, a lot of people are no longer listed in a phone book, according to Ryder.

Death certificates could include the deceased person’s name, cause of death, last known address and names of a spouse and parents, although sometimes the only information it had beyond the name was the country where their parents were thought to have come from, Ryder said.

Death certificates do not include children’s names, which would have made Ryder’s searches a little easier because the children and not the parents are usually the ones still alive today, she said.

Ryder contacted fire departments to obtain personnel records and included a letter to the family in e-mails so they could be notified. Some fire departments never returned Ryder’s messages and were disengaged from the process, she said.

Ryder did a lot of cold calls, but did not always connect with the right people initially. Some were unsure if they were related to the firefighter because a few generations might have passed and not everyone knew their family’s genealogical history.

She visited the Minnesota History Center to search for old newspaper articles and obituaries, which were very helpful because obituaries list the names of family members who were still alive at the time that their loved one died.

Websites such as ancestry.com and peoplefinder.com were useful resources.

Ryder has had and will have some help along the way. The St. Paul Fire Department played a major role in finding families and going through its records, Ryder said.

One of the sons of a fallen firefighter will be laying out the book when all the material is available, according to Zikmund.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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