WORTHINGTON — After 24 years on the Worthington Fire Department — 19 of them spent as chief — Rick von Holdt is ready to retire.
He officially works for the department through the end of the year, but until then, von Holdt will help facilitate a smooth transition from his leadership to that of his successor, Jason Larsen.
"I'm not going to have anybody fail," von Holdt said, "so I'll be around as long as it takes."
Larsen, a supervisor at Bedford Technologies, has been with the Worthington Fire Department for 10 years. He was selected by his fellow firefighters by election a couple weeks ago and appointed Monday by the Worthington City Council.
Von Holdt joined the Worthington Fire Department in 1995, and was selected as chief after five years. Since 2000, von Holdt said, his role has shifted and expanded significantly.
"There have been changes in fire service itself since 9/11," he said. "We obviously don't fight just fires anymore." Firefighters now respond to a large variety of calls, which requires preparation and training.
Von Holdt spent more than 27 years managing Graham Tire. While his sons were growing up, he often served as a Boy Scout leader, which gave him the opportunity to teach first aid and emergency preparedness to troops. That got him interested in emergency medicine.
In 2002, von Holdt became an EMT and began working part-time at the hospital. He went full-time at Sanford Worthington just three years ago.
For the last few years, von Holdt has also been an instructor through Minnesota West teaching new firefighters. The program is based at the Pipestone campus, and instructors travel to fire departments where they are needed. Only 14 technical schools in Minnesota offer fire safety training, von Holdt said, and Minnesota West is ranked fourth. The program clocked 18,000 training hours last year.
Von Holdt also spends a lot of time teaching the Worthington fire fighters. He said he is always telling his crew, "Training is what's going to save your life" — the learned skills are just a bonus.
He serves on the Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which covers the bottom third of the state and is based in Marshall. As part of that team, he helps debrief emergency personnel following tragedies, ensuring that volunteers are supported and have resources for PTSD that they may experience. He also goes over the details with personnel, assuring them they did everything they could, so they can feel closure following the events.
Von Holdt also participates in some county-wide collaborations between different entities. He chairs the Nobles County Mutual Aid Association, which is a coalition of fire chiefs, ambulance directors, emergency services directors and police who work together to solve county problems. He is also on the Nobles County Emergency Planning and Advisory Committee, comprising family services, public works and infrastructure, healthcare, commissioners, the sheriff's department, fire and HAZMAT.
Firefighting is a family affair, von Holdt said of his experience. His dad was a firefighter. His brother and one of his sons also serve the Worthington Fire Department, and his other son is a firefighter in Sibley, Iowa.
Although the Worthington Fire Department currently has 36 members, Von Holdt said it will need about six more during the coming year. Worthington's size would allow for up to 44 total crew members.
Recruitment is one of the challenges Larsen will take on as he takes the reigns of chief from von Holdt. About half of the fire department has five or fewer years of experience, so training is essential. The fire department will host a community information sometime this winter to let the public know more about its personnel needs.
Von Holdt will spend his last few months at the fire department helping the public transition to seeing Larsen as the department's new leader. He has made himself very available to the public, but Larsen will have to evaluate what approach works best for him and his family.
When he retires in January, von Holdt said he wants to use the nest egg he's accumulated during his years of fire service and use it to take his family on an all-inclusive vacation.
He will "get his firefighting fix" by continuing as an instructor with Minnesota West.