Tom Hoxter and Keith Noreen no longer have to set out a change of clothes and keep their radios on in the middle of the night, waiting to respond to a fire, accident or even a false fire alarm.
It’s a strange adjustment Hoxter and Noreen to retire after having volunteered for the Ramsey Fire Department as paid on-call firefighters since it was founded in 1988. Noreen’s wife has an iPad app that allows them to listen to public safety radio traffic. When he heard firefighters called out to a report of a recreational vehicle on fire a few weeks ago, Noreen said was hard for him to not grab his gear and go out the door.
Both had zero experience or knowledge to what it would take to be a firefighter when they started.
Hoxter said the pension benefits is just a small piece to why some people become a volunteer firefighter. What they had was a desire to give back to the community and be a part of a close-knit team that goes beyond Ramsey.
“People want to get involved in the community. The camaraderie is the biggest thing I’ll miss,” said Noreen, 68, who had retired in 2001 from his job as a switchman with the Northwestern Bell phone company.
Hoxter, 55, continues to work for Connexus Energy as a lineman, so there are times when he still be woken up in the middle of the night to repair electrical lines.
Starting from scratch
Prior to 1988, almost all of Ramsey was covered by the Anoka-Champlin Fire Department with the exception of a portion of western Ramsey that the Elk River Fire Department responded to, according to Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler.
After the Ramsey City Council decided the city was large enough for its own department, it advertised for volunteers willing to give up some of their free time to protect the community. The funding to set up the Ramsey Fire Department came from the money the city received when the landfill closed.
“In September 1988, a group of people sat in the old city hall building basement and decided to become our first firefighters,” Kapler said. “There were no fire truck. There was no fire hose. There was no turnout gear. All there was, was ambition and an urge to help our community.”
Hoxter and Noreen were two of about 40 people who showed up to the introduction meeting. About 30 people stuck around to become the charter members of the Ramsey Fire Department.
The first order of business was to buy new equipment. Although the department was in its infancy, the city could afford state-of-the-art equipment, Hoxter said, because of the money the city received when the landfill closed.
One of the first pieces of equipment purchased was a pick-up truck that was retrofitted to fight grass fires, which the department still has, but is budgeted to be replaced soon, Hoxter said.
They purchased an old milk truck that became the department’s first water tanker, which was greatly needed until more of the community received fire hydrants.
The first fire engine was received in August 1989. Ramsey recently sold it to the city of Nowthen when it bought a new engine.
Today, there are about 50 volunteer firefighters and three fire stations, so the department has more equipment and volunteers as the city population has grown. It now covers all calls for Nowthen and Kapler also serves as the fire chief for the St. Francis Fire Department. The city of Ramsey is reimbursed by both communities for providing services.
What has changed the most is the level of training needed to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws, Noreen said. All firefighters are required to show up to at least two-thirds of training sessions that happen every Wednesday evening, Hoxter said. They must respond to one-third of the calls that come to their station. There are about 500 calls a year citywide.
Hoxter said a challenge fire departments face is spending the time to train people who later decide they do not have the time to commit to being a volunteer firefighter.
Hoxter believes Ramsey has fared better than other communities in retaining volunteers because its first meeting is not just a recruitment pitch, but an honest assessment on what the job entails.
“The biggest thing is learn what you’re getting into,” Hoxter said. “We encourage everyone to bring their spouses to talk about the time commitment expectations and how it will piss off the family sometimes, but you will feel good in the end.”
With more than 50 years of combined firefighting experience, Hoxter and Noreen have a lot of stories to tell.
Hoxter commented that they don’t always hear how accident victims they rescued fared because of privacy laws, but they both have heard happy endings to stories that started badly.
Two years ago, a lady came to Fire Station No. 1 and thanked firefighters for saving her life.
“It was really cool because she was going on about how thankful she was and if it wasn’t for us she wouldn’t have survived,” Hoxter said.
Noreen remembers a specific accident from Highway 47 when Ramsey firefighters put the victim a backboard and wrapped her neck in a brace, even though it was unclear whether these precautions were necessary. Turns out it was because doctors later discovered she had a severed spine. Noreen heard that had the firefighters not taken the steps to stabilize her, she may have been in a wheelchair the rest of her life.
Not every story has a happy ending. Both have responded to fatal accidents. Hoxter has come home with his clothes covered in blood and his wife or other friends would want to know what happened.
Noreen remembers having to put a kid in a body bag that had been killed in a rollover crash. Three days later he found out the victim had been good friends with one of his children and had been over to his house on a number of occasions.
“When you go to these car accidents that are bad calls, guys who weren’t on the call will ask what happened, how old were they, what did they look like,” Hoxter said. “People don’t get that you block that out. You’re there to do a job.”
Hoxter said about one-third of calls Ramsey firefighters respond to are for medical emergencies. Some fire departments spend more than half its time responding to these issues, but the Ramsey Police Department takes the bulk of these calls. Ramsey firefighters respond to all vehicle accidents, but will also respond to someone in need of medical assistance if officers need back-up.
From their experience, Noreen believes there are more car accidents than there used to be “because people are driving faster and there’s more cars. I’m surprised we’re not called out to Highway 10 more often.”
Hoxter said there may be more accidents, but the severity does not seem to be as bad because car safety designs have improved.
The remainder of Ramsey firefighters’ time is spent responding to fire calls and fire and carbon monoxide alarms.
Kapler praised their years of service and the role they played in the departments. Hoxter “took on a leadership role from the beginning,” Kapler said. Hoxter would ultimately be appointed the assistant fire chief.
While the requirements called for firefighters to be at one out of three calls, Noreen showed up more than half the time.
“His participation in our emergency response has always been on the top level and in the extra events we do,” Kapler said.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]