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Passing the torch
Jan. 24, 2020

Ivan Raconteur

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Jim Hoof is modest about his service to the Lester Prairie Fire Department, but comments from others who attended the Jan. 14 Lester Prairie City Council meeting – Hoof’s last in the role of chief – provided an indication of the respect he has earned over the years.

During that meeting, Hoof formally announced that he was stepping down from the chief role – although he will continue to serve as a Lester Prairie firefighter. Matt Tonn, another veteran firefighter who served as assistant chief under Hoof, took over the chief role.

“The council appreciates your service as chief,” Mayor Eric Angvall told Hoof. “A thank you doesn’t quite cover what you guys do for us and the city.”

“A good crew makes it go,” Hoof replied. “I appreciate my department and my community. It’s been my honor to serve my community in this capacity.”

Members of the council expressed appreciation to Hoof for his service.

“I don’t think the city realizes how much he has done for our department and the community, Everything in our station is in tip-top shape” one firefighter commented, adding that every Saturday morning Hoof can be found at the fire hall maintaining equipment or working on other projects.

“It’s big shoes to fill,” Tonn said.

Lester Prairie Police Chief Bob Carlson said Hoof was instrumental in implementing the 800 MHz communications system.

“He’s been a valuable resource for my department,” Carlson added.

As one of the assembled firefighters told Hoof speaking on behalf of his fellow firefighters, “It’s been an honor to serve under you as our chief. We, your firemen, have all benefitted from your leadership, your compassion, and your mentoring. You may no longer be our chief, but you will always be our brother. It’s been an honor.”

A legacy of service

Hoof has served on the department for 42 years, the last 19 of those as chief. He was a captain and assistant chief before taking over as chief in 2001.

The excitement of being a firefighter was one of the things that drew Hoof to serve on the department. Family was another, as his two brothers, Don and Larry, had already been on the department five years at the time he joined.

Hoof’s mentors included former Lester Prairie Fire Chief Jerry Pawelk, who Hoof described as “a natural leader.”

Other mentors Hoof mentioned include Dave Baumann, Dave Danielson, Duayne Heimerl, and Luther Hermanson.

Even after 42 years on the department, Hoof said he is still learning.

“I’m still learning on every call,” Hoof said. “That’s what keeps me around.”

There have been changes and accomplishments since Hoof has been on the department.

Today, all of the members of the department have their own turnout gear. This wasn’t always the case.

“We had one pair of size 12 boots,” Hoof recalled. It was first come-first served. “If you didn’t get there quickly, those boots were gone. I spent a lot of time in size 10, which were prevalent back then. That’s painful.”

The TV show “Emergency!” (1972-1979) influenced Tonn to become a firefighter. He also had a younger brother who was on the department when he joined.

Tonn has served on the department for 20 years, and served as training officer, captain, and assistant chief before taking over the chief role last week.

Tonn said his mentors include Hoof, and Hoof’s brother, Don Hoof.

“He was there every time, for everything,” Tonn said of Don Hoof. “His commitment to the mission was incredible.”

The record supports that. Don Hoof retired from the department in 2013 after 40 years of service, and he was active until that point. Of the 141 calls the Lester Prairie Fire Department responded to in 2012, Don Hoof made it to 109 – the highest percentage of any current firefighter, according to a 2013 Herald Journal story.

Tonn said one of the things about serving on the fire department that gives him satisfaction is seeing someone up and around again after the department has been called to a medical situation involving that person.

“You touch a lot of people over time,” Tonn commented.

It’s a lifestyle

Hoof said being a firefighter changes things for the entire family. He said there have been many times when he was called away from birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, and other events, including a daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Firefighters might miss school concerts or plays, sporting events, or family gatherings.

Hoof said the community has been helpful in those cases. He recalled times when he got paged during church, and other members of the congregation told his children, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home.”

Hoof also said he has enjoyed having children at the fire hall over the years. “My youngest daughter has probably rolled more hose than a lot of the guys have,” he said with a smile.

Hoof and Tonn both said their families have helped them along the way. When the pager goes off, wives have made sure their husband’s shoes were by the door, their coat was out, and the garage door was open to save time when they were responding to calls.

What’s special about being a chief?

Being a chief involves attending more meetings, preparing budgets, and working on grants, and a lot more responsibility.

“You’re responsible for all the equipment,” Hoof said, adding that chiefs are also responsible for everyone on the department. “It’s like a family. You adopt everyone’s problems.”

Hoof said City Clerk Marilyn Pawelk has been very helpful in preparing budgets and working with grants.

“Marilyn has been a good asset for me,” Hoof noted, adding that she helps to make sure everything is done correctly.

Although applying for grants is time consuming and requires work, Hoof and Tonn said it is worth the effort.

“It helps keep our budget down,” Hoof noted. Grants have also been helpful in securing everything from nozzles and hoses, to radios and pagers, to big-ticket items such as turnout gear.

Hoof and Tonn said there are many grants and other support available, including those from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Compeer Financial, CenterPoint Energy, McLeod Cooperative Power, Crow River Sno Pros, and the Lester Prairie Lions Club.

Tonn noted that Hoof was at the forefront of working to ensure firefighter health, even before that became common.

One example of this was his work to get a grant for an extractor washing machine for turnout gear. Tonn said Hoof was instrumental in getting this a couple years ago, and many other departments still don’t have one.

Hoof also implemented health initiatives for firefighters, such as pre-screening for certain conditions, such as bringing in an outside company to do pulmonary function tests, and EKGs to catch any heart issues.

Advice for new firefighters

Hoof said when talking to potential new members, the first thing he tells them is “You’re not getting into it for the money.”

He also tells them there is a lot of training involved.

“It is a commitment,” Tonn agreed.

Another thing Hoof impresses on new firefighters is that they must respect other people’s privacy.

He said he gets upset if he sees any of the department’s calls on Facebook.

Hoof and Tonn are proud of the diversity on their department, noting many trades and careers are represented by the members. When something needs to be done, there is usually someone who has experience in that area.

Training the troops

“I’m not going to turn the department upside down,” Tonn commented, regarding his plans for the future.

One thing he would like to do as chief is increase participation in training exercises.

He noted a certain amount of training is mandated. He hopes to implement some “outside the box” thinking to increase participation, and explore working with other local departments to increase training opportunities.

Tonn shared a quote – “You can’t possibly train enough for a job that can kill you.”

Bringing all the members of their department home safely is a major concern for both Hoof and Tonn.

“You don’t want to ever have to go to someone’s house and say, ‘by the way, he’s not coming home.’ That was always my biggest fear,” Hoof said.

What should people know?

There are some things Hoof and Tonn wish more people knew.

One of them is fire burns fast, and things can get out of control quickly.

“A small fire can become huge in seconds,” Hoof said.

“TV is not real life,” Hoof commented.

He noted the department would have been able to fight some of the fires they see today if they had occurred when he first joined the department.

Now, however, with changes in building materials, fires spread much more quickly, reducing the amount of time it is safe for firefighters to enter the structures.

Another thing Hoof and Tonn wish people knew – or would do – is slow down.

Hoof indicated that when emergency responders have to re-route traffic or close a road temporarily to deal with an incident, some people act like the department is inconveniencing them.

“We’re just trying to keep them safe,” Hoof commented.

It’s not only victims, medical personnel, or law enforcement officers that firefighters are trying to keep safe.

“We all want to go home, too,” Hoof commented.

Hoof and Tonn also advise people to keep smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms up to date. They also recommend families have escape plans in the event of a fire – including a designated meeting place – and practice the plans.

Tonn recalled how he and his wife passed their daughters out through a window in their stocking feet and taught them to run to the shed, which was the family’s designated meeting place.

Hoof and Tonn both enjoy talking to children about fire prevention. Hoof also likes to see children taking rides on fire trucks.

“They could be our next generation of firefighters,” Hoof observed.

Hoof and Tonn also said if homeowners shovel around fire hydrants in the winter, it can save valuable time in the event of a fire.

Tonn also said when he is driving around town, he sees a lot of doors and porches where the snow has not been cleared. He advises people to keep all doors clear, even those that are not used all the time, or they won’t be much good as an exit if there is an emergency.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions,” Tonn said, noting that firefighters are happy to answer when people are looking for information.

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