BEMIDJI -- According to Justin Sherwood, being a successful firefighter is something that is “either in your blood or it isn’t” -- and it certainly seems to be in his.

Growing up, his father was a firefighter in Perham, which always made Sherwood immensely proud.

Though he went to college for elementary education, Sherwood soon found himself drawn back to Bemidji, and to firefighting. At the end of February, he will begin to support and protect the city that’s always been there for him, as Bemidji’s newest fire chief.

“I am so passionate about this town and my department here,” he said. “I want us to be a powerhouse of the North, I want to be a growing department, a forward-thinking, aggressive department that people look to and say, ‘Those guys are doing some great things.’ Our city deserves that.”

For him, it’s all about the people of Bemidji.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“For years, this city has done nothing but support me and my family,” Sherwood said. “They reach out to me, they support our department. The support that I’ve received from this community, has been overwhelming.”

Bemidji roots

Sherwood lives in Bemidji with his wife, Amanda, and three children. He is originally from the area, and attended Bemidji High School and Bemidji State University. One of the best pieces of advice Sherwood received when starting his career as a firefighter was: “Don’t forget where you came from,” and he has taken this to heart.

Sherwood has 18 years of experience in firefighting and fire prevention -- in his early days, he was living at the station as a dorm firefighter while he was attending BSU.

“It’s been a heck of a ride,” he said of his time with the department so far. “Doors just kind of opened, and I fell into it.”

Prior to his appointment as chief, he was serving as a captain at the Bemidji department and oversaw fire prevention education work. Sherwood has also served as a fire service and CPR instructor at Northwest Technical College.

The highlights of his career so far range from big to small, “from just making someone smile or seeing kids in the street say, ‘Hey, it’s Firefighter Justin,’” he said. “It’s being able to simply work with people. I love helping people and getting to know them.”

Sherwood said the time he most felt supported by the community was when he qualified for the Firefighter Combat World Challenge in 2008 in Las Vegas.

“This town opened their arms for me and supported me,” he said. “Whether it was financially or just ‘good lucks’ they reached out to me.”

Sherwood accepted the chief position on Jan. 27 and will begin as chief on Feb. 28. Until then, he will be preparing for his start with Interim Chief Loebs, who has been acting as interim chief following the retirement of David Hoefer at the end of 2020.

Reaching the youth

Sherwood’s background in education certainly isn’t going to waste. During his tenure with the Bemidji Fire Department, he took on a leading role in reaching out to the youngest Bemidjians.

Sherwood said he’s always enjoyed working with children, and has been affectionately dubbed “Firefighter Justin,” on his youth visits.

Sherwood said working with the youth has tapped into an untapped population, and hopes that his work over the past years has led to a safer Bemidji.

“I knew that if we started at a young age, after a number of years, a lot of those kids I first touched base with are now adults,” he said. “I think about after 10 or 12 years of youth programming, now we’ve created a much safer culture in our city.”

Going forward, Sherwood said another untapped population he would like to reach if staffing allows, is the elderly of the area. As many victims of fire often fall into either the youngest or oldest members of society, he explained.

Sherwood holds a role as a Youth Firesetting Prevention and Intervention Manager with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office, which coordinates the YFPI specialists in 14 counties in the Northwest corner of the state of Minnesota.

Goals and development

Sherwood hopes to open paths for others interested in leadership positions as he did.

“When I started out here as an entry-level firefighter, just zipping my boots on, I had great mentors who helped me grow and become knowledgeable. That’s what I strive for, to pass on the love of the career,” he said. “I want to invest in my firefighters, it’s so important to me.”

Personally, he hopes in the next couple of years to finish up a managing officer training program through the National Fire Academy, and pursue a master’s degree in fire leadership.

Within the department, he aims to focus on improving the mental and physical health of staff.

“This job takes (a toll) on you, physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “I want to focus on those resources, because I feel like if our people are healthy and they are strong mentally, we’re unstoppable.”

Following MnFIRE guidelines, he hopes to better address firefighter heart health, cancer prevention and mental health.

Going forward

Early in the beginning of his tenure as chief, Sherwood hopes to increase Bemidji’s minimum firefighter staffing levels.

The department will also hire a deputy chief within the next few months who will help Sherwood with day-to-day operations and take the lead on community fire prevention.

As chief, he hopes to create and maintain connections locally, statewide and nationally, putting Bemidji and its fire crew on the map. The department also has plans to replace a fire engine that is “getting up there in years.”

In the more distant future, Sherwood said he is eyeing a potential fifth fire station south of town in the next decade or so -- if the community supports it -- as residential development grows in the area near Lake Plantagenet.

Sherwood aims to continue supporting Bemidji as it supported him. He mentioned even having to turn his phone off for a while after the announcement of his promotion due to so many community well wishes.

“Early on in my fire career here, they welcomed me with open arms,” Sherwood said. “We have deep, deep roots here. You grow to love a place and actually become very protective of it.”