Nancy Edmonds Hanson
The people of Moorhead called for help 4,597 times last year.
Chief Jeff Wallin knows that when the public hears about “fire fighters,” flames are the first thing that comes to mind. Some of those calls – 68, to be precise – were for actual fires. Exactly half were burning structures, the kind of battles that come to mind when fire fighters are mentioned. Of the rest, 10 were burning vehicles; 23 involved garbage or dumpsters; and one was categorized as on “wild land” in the Oakport area.
But those fires amount to just 1.5% of the work that Moorhead’s 33 fire fighters accomplished that year.
“Fighting fires is a vital part of what we do,” explains the chief, who was named to the top job in January after 29 years with the department. “But it’s not even close to the total service we provide to the people in our community.”
When the alarms go off at Moorhead’s two fire stations, the crews who climb aboard the engines and head out face the unknown … relying on their training (some 200 hours every year) to prepare them to take on the widest possible range of challenges.
Medical emergencies? The Moorhead fire fighters are EMTs, essential since medical emergencies accounted for more than half of the calls the regional emergency dispatch center directed to them last year. Fire fighters accompany Sanford ambulances on calls, often also joined by the police. “It depends who can get there quickest,” Wallin says.
Spills of hazardous materials? The train derailment that devastated East Palestine, Ohio, may have brought that to the fore again for the public, but it’s been on the minds of local fire fighters for decades. “All of our team members are hazmat technicians,” the chief reports. One hundred seven calls in 2022 involved hazardous materials, though none came close the severity of the Ohio derailment. The department is one of five large Minnesota teams trained and equipped to fight chemical emergencies.
Almost 1,000 of last year’s calls for service fit into the category of “other,” ranging from code enforcement and commercial inspections to citizens’ concerns and complaints. Finally, one out of eight call-outs turned out to be nothing at all – false alarms, the bane of fire fighters geared up to provide life-saving help at a moment’s notice.
Wallin says growing up to be a fireman was far from his mind back in St. Francis, Minnesota, a town of 8,000 north of the Twin Cities. But there were inklings: His father was a volunteer fire fighter when Jeff was a youngster, and the 1970s TV show “Emergency” piqued his interest in the potential for protecting his neighbors. After considering and discarding the prospects of a career in mechanical engineering or radio and TV, the father of a high school buddy persuaded him to try out the local volunteer fire department.
And his interest, one might say, caught fire. He continued for the next seven years, rising to lieutenant on the St. Francis department’s day shift and serving as its training officer and fire marshal. Meanwhile, he completed training in fire protection at North Hennepin Community College and worked part time as an EMT for Allina Health Care in St. Francis and neighboring Buffalo.
“In the 1990s, getting on full-time in a department took both a lot of training and some luck,” he remembers. He took exams for openings in several suburban departments, generally competing with 300 or so fellow applicants; on one occasion, he was among 1,000 hopefuls taking the qualifying test for the city of Minneapolis. When an opening occurred in Moorhead, he says he was overjoyed to find only 100 were competing. His subsequent success led to the job offer he’d been waiting for and put him on the path he’s followed for his entire career.
In the beginning, Jeff says he intended stay a few years to gain experience, then take those credentials back to the Twin Cities to be closer to his family. “But the people in Moorhead reminded me of my home town from the very beginning,” he confesses. “They became my friends and new family. Honestly, I fell in love with this community and decided to make it my home.”
Over the years, Wallin rose within the ranks to assistant and then deputy fire chief. In 2021, when former chief Rich Duysen resigned during a period of internal turmoil, he was named interim fire chief. That position was made official last January.
The fire service has changed dramatically, he reflects, during his three decades in the field. One aspect that remains the same, though, is a determination to keep this community safe. “The people most at risk of dying in a fire are the very young and the very old,” he says. “They have the least ability to escape.” Alcohol use factors into many fire tragedies, he adds, as does victims’ socioeconomic status: “Often they don’t live in properties that are as fire-safe and don’t have the resources to advocate for themselves.”
Building practices have changed since he joined the fire service, he notes, prompting changes in how fire fighters approach each incident. “Fires burn hotter and faster now, due to building with more synthetic materials. That’s changed how we fight them,” he says. And it has increased the danger. In the 1970s, occupants generally had 30 minutes to escape a house fire. Now, he says, that time could be cut to as little as three and one-half minutes. That has made the early warning provided by smoke detectors essential: “That early notification is absolutely the key to saving lives.”
The pace of fires has picked up, he explains, because homes and apartments are now being built with more lightweight materials; instead of the 2x12s of which traditional floors were built, a grid of 2x4s is now nailed together with metal plates. “Fire heats up the plates, the nails pop out, and the assemblies fail,” he suggests.
Many materials like plywood and OSB (oriented strand board) are more also more flammable than the solid wood that predated them. That means, he says, that fire can climb from the floor to the roof in as little as 10 minutes, compared with 30 minutes to an hour in the past. “We used to have more time to assess the situation when we arrived,” he says. “Now our very first priority is getting water on the fire.” Vinyl siding, too, accelerates the pace. Once ignited, the highly flammable siding gives off vapors as it races up the side of the building into the attic.
How do professional fire fighters overcome the instinctive human urge to run away from imminent danger? How do they learn, instead, to run toward it? “It’s a matter of training and education about the danger and the risks – knowing what needs to be done to stop it,” Jeff explains. “We take calculated risks in situations, yes, but when we go in, we know what needs to be done.
“Fire follows the natural laws of physics. We spend our lives preparing to stop the harm from happening.”