Doug Nelson did not anticipate a long-range career when he volunteered for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department in December 1990, but he eventually earned a coveted full-time position and is now retiring from the department after 23 years.
Nelson, 44, accepted an assistant fire chief-fire marshal position in the Burnsville Fire Department. He said it was not an easy decision because the men and women he has served with are as much a part of his family as his wife Terri and their 19-year-old and 16-year-old daughters.
Ask any firefighter or police officer who their heroes are and most will say their family, Nelson said.
“Firefighters, cops, people in public service have difficult jobs, but our spouses and our families have it a heck of a lot tougher,” Nelson said. “I would not have lasted in this job as long as I have without the support at home.”
Joining SBM Fire Department
The Spring Lake Park High School Opportunities in Emergency Care program that teaches students life-saving skills was founded by Joe Grafft in 1976. Nelson once heard from Grafft that many of his former students have gone on to become firefighters, police officers or paramedics.
You can add Nelson to that list. The Fridley High School Class of 1988 graduate, who was able to enroll in the OEC program, was one of the students in Grafft’s last classes before current OEC teacher Bill Neiss took over in the fall of 1988.
Outside of school, Nelson worked for Chisago Lakes Rescue Service as an EMT starting in February 1988. He attended college for two years in Arkansas, but continued to work during the summers for Chisago Lakes. He worked there until 1994 after he had been on the SBM Fire Department for a few years.
While in Arkansas, Nelson became a volunteer firefighter for the first time with in a rural department that he believes only had eight calls he needed to respond to in one-and-a-half years. But the work interested him.
Not long after he moved back to Blaine in May 1990, Nelson got the urge to volunteer for the SBM Fire Department as he watched the guys leave the fire station. There weren’t any opening at the time, so he gave them his name and phone number. They called him in October to test his skills, which included picking up a 75-pound weight and twisting from side to side, walking on a beam, climbing an 85-foot ladder, doing the required amount of sit-ups and either push-ups or pull-ups and roll a fire hose.
The reason he stayed was because of the camaraderie with his fellow firefighters. It’s not for the glamour of the job. Television shows will portray firefighters putting out the fires, but will often skip over the many hours mundane work of checking for hot spots and cleaning up long after the flames are extinguished.
Nelson became a full-time firefighter captain and inspector in July 2002. Prior to this, he had been working at his family business Midwest Precision Products, even when he was also an EMT.
Nelson ultimately was promoted to be one of the battalion chiefs. There are currently five. These officers would run tactical operation of the fire department during their assigned 24-hour shift. They would be the incident commander on large fires and accident scenes and would respond to fire alarm calls. Nelson was also continued to be certified as an emergency medical technician and a to respond to incidents involving hazardous materials.
One memorable, but scary day was Sept. 2, 2003. He had not been a fire captain for too long and was leader a team into a burning home on 112th Circle.
As they were crawling through the kitchen, they did not realize there was a fire in the space between the main floor and the basement. This firefighter hit a weak spot and fell through the floor. He may have hit his head on the basement floor had he not grabbed onto a fire hose and righted himself quickly enough to land on his shoulder.
“I put out a may-day call,” Nelson said. “I thought he was dead and that I was about to die. It was probably one of the most terrifying events I had ever been through.”
A fire crew was able to break out a basement window to rescue this firefighter. As Nelson and the rest of his team left the home, the rest of the kitchen floor fell into the basement.
Thankfully, this story had a good ending and he can laugh about it now when around the guys. He has heard this firefighter joke with others that Nelson pushed him through the floor.
One of the duties battalion chiefs starting taking on over the years was meeting the needs of the family of cardiac arrest victims. Nelson and other battalion chiefs have received many cards thanking them for their service, but he remembers one lady sending him a card a couple months after her husband died after a cardiac arrest. She just wanted to thank him for caring so much for her and her family in this difficult time.
“Sometimes I suppose when I’m old and look back on my life I won’t say I wasted my time,” Nelson said. “I think people who do this job will all collectively look back and go, ‘You know what. We had a job that mattered. Maybe not to everybody, but some people it mattered a lot to. It’s a privilege to have it.’”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org