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The fire remains: Times have changed but their spark for the job remains

Bemidji Volunteer fireman 2nd Assistant Mike Collins, left, and Deputy Chief Kevin Bahr have a combined 45 years of experience. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER1 / 3
Their helmets may be a different color for easy identification during a live fire, but deputy chiefs Collins and Bahr have served in every capacity in their 20-plus years of service. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER2 / 3
From left, Bahr and Collins check out next week’s duty roster. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER3 / 3

Little Kevin Bahr knew he wanted to be a fireman when he grew up. The flashing red lights and blaring sirens on the fire trucks captivated the young lad.

“I thought the red lights and sirens were just absolutely cool,” Bahr said. “I always wanted to be a firefighter.”

On the flip side, it wasn’t until he grew up that Mike Collins heard the call. In the summer of 1981, Collins took a job as a wild land smoke chaser. He was hooked.

“After smoke chasing with the DNR, I realized there were people who really needed my help,” Collins said. “I enjoyed helping them.”

Bahr, a born and raised Bemidji boy, is deputy fire chief for the Bemidji Fire Department, an honor he’s held for 12 of his 23 years with the department.

Collins, originally from Park Rapids, is BFD’s assistant fire chief. He’s dedicated 22 years to the company. The two have climbed the ladder to rank as chiefs, but they reminisce remembering their rookie roots.

It was at the urging of his two cousins that Bahr mustered up the gumption to head into the fire hall and see if he had what it took to join the brotherhood of firefighters. When he first looked into joining, he had to live within city limits, which he didn’t.

“Back in 1990, they changed the response area so I tested for it, got on and it’s been cool ever since,” Bahr said. “I got to drive the big fire truck with the lights and siren and pop the air horn.”

Nowadays, courageous students can study firefighting in college. In Bahr’s era, you filled out an application, took a written exam and had to pass physical agility tests.

The physical component included dragging hose, hoisting a ladder, chopping through a wall, dragging a 125-pound dummy and  removing and remounting a ladder from a truck.

“It was hard for me to get on because I’m afraid of heights,” Bahr confessed.

In order to pass the physical test, firefighter hopefuls must climb a ladder 75 feet in the air without hands. Collins added that if there was even a slight breeze the ladder would sway back and forth.

Since most of the BFD crew are paid on-call firefighters, they have other full-time jobs. Collins said because of the diverse backgrounds, the team has a vast pool of talents and abilities. Two of the men are tower climbers, the fire truck ladders come up short in comparison to the sky grazing media towers they climb regularly.

Then and now

The BFD has grown from one fire station to three.

“We protect 522 square miles,” Collins said. “That’s one of the larger areas in the state.”

None of the current halls are equipped with a fire pole like the original old school station.

Seven full-time firefighters plus the chief and 40 paid on-call positions make up the BFD crew. Collins said a common misconception the public has is that the crew is all volunteer-based.

“We’re all trained firefighters,” Collins said.

The department is constantly training and learning. All the full-time firefighters are EMTs, the rest are trained in first aid and CPR.

“Since we’ve gotten Dave Hoeffer as chief, the training opportunities have increased. We’re really headed in a positive direction,” Bahr said.

Collins said most departments don’t have the same combination of full-time crew and paid on-call staff as BFD. Plus, the BFD has three firefighters who live in the dorm and man the station 24/7.

Collins was a dormer for a short time. He said there are dorm stories that have lingered for years. One tale involves a dormer rushing out to a fire in the 1970s. He was stationed up on the ladder and the fireman steadying the ladder below looked up and realized his friend forgot something in his dash out the door — pants.

Gear used to include nearly hip-high boots and a heavy coat that overlapped down to mid-thigh. Scientific advances have allowed gear to become lighter and cover more area. What used to weigh 60 pounds is now closer to 40, something Bahr and Collins said may be a contributing factor to more women joining fire departments nationwide.

Techniques have also changed and being small is sometimes an advantage, like when one of the dormers had to squeeze inside a tanker to investigate a leak.

Another change is evident in the trucks. Old-time trucks were designed so firefighters could stand in the cab and gear up on the way to a call. Now trucks can’t roll until everyone is buckled into their seats.

“We used to be going down the road gearing up, standing in the cab,” Collins said. “Turn a corner and we’d topple like dominos.”

“Times have changed. We don’t do that anymore,” Bahr said.

“What I miss, is riding tailboard,” Collins said. Tailboarding is when a firefighter rides on the back of the truck.

When it gets real

The toughest part of the job, both men agreed, is fire fatalities.

“It’s always interesting on route to a fire,” Collins said. “It’s always quiet, serious business. You don’t know what’s ahead of you.”

Bahr and Collins fought a house fire about 13 years ago where three siblings were caught inside. It was winter. Blowing, cold, windy weather contrasted against the flames.

“We were trying to get holes cut in the walls to get them out,” Bahr remembered. “Adults is hard, but when there’s kids just wasn’t a good deal.”

“We were close, that’s what hurts,” Collins said, voice trailing off as if he was standing back at the scene. “That was a bad one.”

The day after that fire you couldn’t buy a smoke detector in town, Collins added. Both men attended a critical incident debriefing after that fire. It’s that type of shared experience that cements the bond of a fire department family.

A brotherhood, a family

Bahr doesn’t know what he will do when he retires. He plans to continue serving the public as part of the BFD until his body gives out.

Collins, has decided it is time to hang up his helmet. He will be retiring in July. Collins said sometimes you have to make moves in life and sometimes those moves take you too far outside the three mile response diameter.

“Firefighting becomes your life,” Collins said. “It’s always part of who you are.”

Who Bahr is, is a man who abandons his wife wherever, whenever he gets a call.

“He’s left his wife more places,” Collins said of Bahr.

One year, Bahr was attempting to atone for chronically forgetting his anniversary. He made reservations at Peppercorn’s. He had roses delivered. He told his wife Rhonda to meet him there at 7 p.m.

“Well, I never showed up. I was at a fire,” Bahr laughed. “I’ve left that poor woman everywhere. Wal-Mart, the theater, church, grocery store.”

Once, at Applebees, Rhonda was approached by a sheriff’s deputy who saw Bahr hightail out of the restaurant. The deputy offered her a ride home. “It’s a tight community,” Bahr said.

“We are like a big family here,” Collins said. “I’ve seen Kevin’s kids grow up and have kids of their own now.”

Collins wife Sheila, Rhonda and the other firefighter family members band together to make sure the crew has snacks on hand at all times. Bahr and Collins said their wives and the other family members don’t get enough credit for their support.

“(Rhonda’s) an amazing woman and she’s put up with this for 23 years,” Bahr said.

When Bahr is headed out the door in the middle of the night to a fire call, Rhonda has a system.

Bahr said she is always a step ahead. She gets his clothes ready, puts out his shoes, lays out his jacket, and hands him his pager, two-way radio, keys and wallet.

“We’re a different breed,” Bahr said. “Most people come running out when something’s burning. We meet them going in.”

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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