A family of firefightersSIBLEY, Iowa — They get together at the usual family gathering — Christmas, Thanksgiving, graduations — and idle chit-chat always turns to the same subject. They might start out talking football or fishing, but it doesn’t take long for a family passion to come up — firefighting.
SIBLEY, Iowa — They get together at the usual family gathering — Christmas, Thanksgiving, graduations — and idle chit-chat always turns to the same subject. They might start out talking football or fishing, but it doesn’t take long for a family passion to come up — firefighting.
With about 115 combined years of firefighting experience, it’s no wonder the group has a lot to talk about.
Ron Markman of Brewster was a member of the Worthington Fire Department for 25 years. He left the department when he moved to Brewster. His brother-in-law, Harlan Hayenga, served 22 years on the Windom Fire Department before retiring 15 years ago. Harlan’s brother, Ellison Hayenga, retired from the Sibley Fire Department after 33 years, and still serves on the Sibley Ambulance crew.
Harlan’s son-in-law, Brad Willemssen of Sibley, has served on five different departments in Minnesota and Iowa for a total of 12 years. Ron’s son, Phil Markman, is still active on the Jackson Fire Department and the ambulance crew, with 22 years of service in so far.
And then there is Paul Reisdorfer, Ron’s son-in-law, who died in service. He served on the Worthington Fire Department for two years, then moved away. In 1989, while serving as part of the Hartford Speedway medical team, he was killed when a race car jumped the track during hot laps and plowed into Reisdorfer and his fellow medical crewman, killing Reisdorfer and crippling the other man.
Of all the men, Ron was the first one to join a department.
“That makes me the patriarch,” he joked.
According to Ron, he joined the Worthington Fire Department at his boss’ insistence. Because a fire had broken out at his place of employment and two employees who were firefighters were on hand to offer assistance, the boss wanted Ron to join when one of the firefighting employees left the company.
“A couple years after that, the boss left, but I stayed on the department,” Ron said. “I always knew I could outlast him.”
Harlan worked for the city of Windom in the water department, and two of his fellow employees who were members of the Windom Fire Department encouraged him to join in 1974.
“It was easier for city employees to be able to drop what they were doing and go,” Harlan explained. “When it came to a fire in the city, they were more than willing to let us go fight it, and at times we were gone for hours.”
Ellison was introduced to the wonders of firefighting by Ron, who brought him down to Worthington’s fire hall to look around.
“I thought it was kind of cool,” Ellison admitted.
Not long afterward, Ellison joined the Sibley department and also became an emergency medical technician.
The next generation just seemed to follow — Brad worked for the city of Sibley and joined the department there, Paul joined in Worthington and Phil suited up in Jackson, where he also became an EMT.
“I grew up with it,” Phil said. “Dad’s friends were always dropping, by or there were visits to the fire station. I figure it’s better to help out where you can in whatever way you can.”
Being part of a fire department requires a serious commitment, all five men agree, and a passion for what you are doing. But it can be harder these days, as many people work out of town and can’t just leave their job to be gone for hours at a time. Some companies allow employees to leave when dispatched to a fire, but others can’t.
“As companies streamline, they don’t always have the personnel on hand to let people leave like that,” Phil remarked.
“Management is usually quite willing and happy to have firemen on the crew, but there are times you just can’t leave your job,” Harlan added.
In Ellison’s experience, some employees are not allowed to leave unless a second call requesting more help comes over the pagers.
These days, it is also getting harder to find people willing to make the commitment to a fire department. Extensive training is involved, as are meetings, drills and other fire department business. Just getting through Fire Fighter I, the state-required training, takes a large time commitment.
Harlan took his original training in 1975.
“I did it locally. One of our chiefs was an instructor,” he stated. “Then, about 10 years later, we all went back into it.”
Ron couldn’t quite remember if he had ever finished all the required classes for Fire Fighter I.
“Your certificate is hanging on the wall downstairs, Dad,” Phil reminded him.
“Oh, then I must have,” Ron said with a laugh.
Ron had some medical training, but didn’t reach as high as EMT status. Each department has different medical requirements for their firefighters — some take first aid classes, becoming adept in CPR and the use of defibrillators, while others are required to take First Responder courses, a commitment of another 80 hours of school and hands-on training.
With a department of 27 people, Harlan said, Windom wanted one-third of them certified as EMTs, but that can sometimes cause confusion.
“When there’s a big disaster, which job do you do?” he asked.
When Phil first joined the department in Jackson, members were required to train as both firefighters and EMTs, but now “they have backed off on that,” he explained.
Ellison’s department has an interesting way of bringing extra people on board — a cadet program for high school students. After the city realized the cadets could be covered by city insurance, they involved a half dozen kids.
“The act as go-fers,” he explained. “They fetch tools, get tarps set out, get stuff ready to go.
”The cadets are allowed to leave school for calls that are dispatched, and in turn must maintain a certain grade point average. Teachers let the firefighters know if someone’s grades are slipping, and it isn’t unusual for a cadet to find he or she suddenly has a firefighter as a tutor.
“You wouldn’t believe those kids, and the difference this program makes in them,” Ellison said. “No matter what they were like before they got involved, they become these respectful, good kids. Being a cadet really gives them something to look forward to.”
Those students learn early on the bond that forms between firefighters. All five men described that bond, with no offense to female firefighters and rescuers, as a brotherhood.
“That brotherhood goes for not only your own department, but all firefighters,” Ellison explained. “You meet people from other departments through training and mutual aid calls, and it’s great when you are somewhere outside your own city and you hear someone call you by name.”
Even when traveling, it isn’t unusual for the guys to bring an extra hat or shirt from their department and visit an out-of-state fire station to swap. Ellison recalled being in a restaurant down south and being told, “Firefighters don’t pay for meals here.” He was also asked to sign a wall that carried the signatures of firefighters from all over the country.
“That brotherhood — the camaraderie — reaches all over the world,” he said.
It isn’t uncommon to see relatives within departments, the men stated —there are fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins, some going into second and third generations. Firefighters are also seeing second and third generations of kids in the schools. Many do fire education programs in elementary schools during fire safety month, and are now teaching the children and grandchildren of their first students. Having a youngster run up to say “hi” at the grocery store is a common occurrence after the fire safety programs are taught.
The camaraderie isn’t all about fighting fires — sometimes it’s about helping each other out with whatever comes along. Ellison told a story of a storm that hit during a graduation party. Firefighters from several departments ended up in his mother’s yard cutting down branches and boarding up windows. It isn’t uncommon for a firefighter to lift the hood on a car in his driveway, only to find three other firefighters staring down into the engine five minutes later.
As the five men sat around a table, sharing news clippings, photos of themselves in bunker suits and firefighter memorabilia, the talk inevitably turned to the fires they have fought — and the old equipment they used at one time to fight the blazes.
Long rubber coats that reached down to the top of their boots made it trickier to climb ladders or scoot through crawl spaces. Gloves that weren’t much more protective than a regular pair of winter gloves. Breathing apparatus and masks that have changed over time.
The stories, however, are the amazing part. As the five men swap stories of backdrafts, collapsing floors, frozen gloves and flare-ups, they laugh about what, at the time, were incredibly dangerous moments.
“If you didn’t eat smoke back then, you weren’t a true fireman,” Ron laughed.
“When I first got on the department, we rode on the backs of the trucks,” Harlan added. “They don’t let you do that anymore.”
Not that answering calls are all fun and games, they agree. Any call involving children is tough. Ellison mentioned a little girl who was crushed and killed in a junkyard, Ron talked about two drownings and a fire death in his first year on the department, and Phil relayed a story about a drowning that had the diving team searching for a body under harsh conditions.
Ellison had another story to tell. As part of the ambulance squad, he was called to a farm accident in Ocheyedan, Iowa, only to find the man that was killed was his own brother-in-law.
“Later, the family was all still at the hospital, and I needed to get out of there,” he said, voice choked with emotion. “I went down to the fire hall, and there they were. The guys. I just hung out with them for awhile.”
Trusting people with your life, knowing they are behind you holding a hose and backing you up, Brad said, forges friendships that last a lifetime.
“And the adrenaline rush is great,” he admitted with a smile.
Harlan said his daughter once wrote an essay about the smell of a fire station — something firefighters may not notice after a while. The smoke that stays in the bunker suits no matter how often they are washed, the smell of fuel that lingers from trucks and generators, and the inevitable dust from trucks that lumbered through the mud that seems to accompany every fire call.
Phil said he learned old-school methods of firefighting around his father and uncles, listening to their conversations and stories from the time he was young.
“I got to go in once with three new firefighters wearing airpacks when I was in high school,” he said. “As things got hairy, their breathing got faster. I still remember that sound. Later, when I was on, I heard that again.”
Both Ron and Harlan said in their last few years of firefighting, they didn’t like to wear the facemasks.
“We’d always go inside with the new ones, and some of them didn’t tolerate the masks well,” Ron said. “They were claustrophobic.”
“I didn’t want to wear one the last 10 years I was on,” Harlan admitted. “Not after that time I ran out of air.”
It takes the older firefighters to train the younger, all five men believe. The things the newbies hear about and see with the seasoned professionals can’t be replaced by book learning.
“It’s the old guys teaching the new,” Ellison explained. “The art of smoke, what to attack and what to back away from.”
They all nodded, then Ron broke into a grin.
“There was this one time…,” he began, then a new round of stories broke out.
“We had this new guy…”
“The wall just lit up and we back-pedaled fast…”
“That air shock bumper just barely missed my knee…”
Elevator fires, coats stiff with ice, frozen hoses and 700-below wind chills were discussed, each run more harrowing than the last and each discussed in detail with smiles and a particular glint in the eye of the teller.
“Why anyone would want to get out of a warm bed to go fight a fire in the freezing cold…” Ron began, then shook his head. “Firefighters are nuts.”
They all smiled and bobbed their heads in agreement, until Harlan added one more comment that had their heads nodding with more enthusiasm.
“I do miss the adrenaline,” he said simply. “I miss the pager going off.”