Fire crew: Job is worth it

BLUE EARTH – A lot has changed since Mark Mensing joined Blue Earth Fire Department nearly 36 years ago.

“There’s nothing left from when I started,” he says.

“And they sold the horse, right?” joked Jim Wirkus.

Mensing’s tenure doesn’t reach back to the days of horse-drawn trucks, but he and four other firefighters recently had some fun and serious reflection recalling the 126 years of service they have racked up collectively.

Mensing began in June 1978. Nick Bleess is next with 25 years, having started April 1989. Kim Meyers has tallied 24 years, beginning in December 1989. Roger Davis has put in 21 years, starting May 1993. Jim Wirkus just passed 20 years, beginning in March 1994.

Davis has been chief for four years while Wirkus has been the assistant chief for five. Mensing was fire chief for seven.

“He hired most of us here,” Davis noted.

“Still regret that,” Mensing deadpanned.

By joining, Mensing was keeping up a family tradition.

“Uncle was on, dad was on,” Mensing said. “Some people belong to Lions Club, we belong to the fire department.”

Bleess joined to help out the community while Davis thought it would be fun.

“It was a lot simpler time,” Mensing said. “When you went to a fire call, you didn’t have to worry about getting AIDS. That kind of stuff wasn’t around yet.”

Back then, firefighters fought fires; they weren’t called to car accidents unless there was a fire. Times changed and the fire department with it.

Now, firefighters operate the Jaws of Life to pry people out of vehicles. They disconnect batteries, manage fuel leaks and stabilize vehicles so first responders can do their jobs. They even drive the ambulances if needed.

“One of the biggest changes is gear and training,” Mensing said.

He pointed out the crew had 1,336 hours of training in 2009 and 1,999 hours in 2013.

“When I got on, we probably had two hours a month,” Mensing said. “You got your training the first time you went to the fire.”

Mensing still has his first turnout coat and helmet, and donned both. The coat doesn’t even have reflective tape.

“Just a raincoat,” said Bleess.

“Equipment is what saves our butts,” Mensing said.

“We used to fight fires standing outside, now we go inside,” Meyers said.

“It didn’t take much to get injured,” Mensing said. “Now you’re so well-protected, you go in too far.”

He remembered that firefighters were called to a fire by the siren being blown, followed by a series of toots to signify which ward the fire was in.

“Close to 1980, when we got the pagers; that was a big improvement,” Mensing said. “If you were a little ways out of town, you got a page.”

One thing the guys were glad to see go was the old fire hall, built in the 1890s and located in the building that now houses the Blue Earth Chamber of Commerce and the Jolly Green Giant museum.

“We had to take the bumper off the one truck to get it in (and be able to close the overhead door),” Meyers said.

Trucks were stored all over town in city-owned buildings, he added. Firefighters had to go to the fire hall, grab keys and scatter to various trucks. Sometimes they found the extension cords unplugged, so a truck wouldn’t start.

“Lot of times, we had to move something to get a truck out,” said Davis, noting forklifts, palettes and other things.

They have nothing but good things to say about the “new” fire hall on Seventh Street, which is a decade old.

“That last stall over there is more room than we had in the old fire hall,” Mensing said.

“Everything’s under one building here,” Davis said.

Inside, they enjoy the camaraderie and love to joke, but there’s a serious side to what they do too.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction when you save somebody’s house or cut somebody out of the car,” Mensing said. “But there are a lot of times when you can’t save them. It’s bad enough to lose an adult, but to lose a child.”

“You never forget those,” Davis said.

Why have they stayed so long?

“A fireman’s best friend: adrenaline,” Mensing said. “You don’t hurt until after the adrenaline wears off. I still enjoy doing it. When the call comes in and the adrenaline doesn’t, you know it’s time to quit.”

“Makes you feel good to help somebody,” Bleess said.

“I just enjoy it, helping people out,” Wirkus said. “As long as I’m physically capable, I’ll stay on.”