Turning off the pager
By Liz Vos,
In May 1982, Dean Mitchell was voted onto the Albany Fire Department, fulfilling an aspiration to serve his community. In the nearly 33 years that followed, he came to the aid of countless people in their time of need; leading and working alongside his colleagues. On January 1, 2016, upon his retirement from the department, he turned his pager off for good. A banquet to honor Dean was held on March 12, serving as a salute to the dedication he and his family gave to the community.
As he continues to get used to not having his pager strapped to his side, Dean says the habit of being ready to drop everything at any moment is a tough one to break.
“I still find myself feeling for it,” he said of the radio/pager. “It has been such a big part of my routine to put it on in the morning and reach for it to turn down the volume when I head into church – I cannot help but think it is still there.”
Dean doesn’t know exactly how many times the pager has gone off over the years; after a while, he lost track. He joined the department under the inspiration of his dad, Cliff, who was an Albany Fireman for nearly 15 years.
“My dad was a firefighter and I guess it is the dream of a lot of young men and women,” he said.
At the time, Dean and his wife Sheila lived across the street from the Albany Fire Hall. The close proximity helped since back then pagers did not exist. Dean recalls the fire phones installed in the homes of firemen.
“The fire phone had a constant ring instead of a regular phone ring, so you knew it was someone calling with an emergency,” he explained.
There was a fire siren on a tower at the station and the first fireman who could get to there would blow the whistle to alert any other firemen of the call, in case they were not at home to answer their fire phone.
Years later, the first pagers became available on a local level through the Albany Telephone Company. Eventually, the 911 system came into effect and pagers went through the county, once again changing how the department was dispatched – speed and accuracy continued to improve with each trend.
Recalling the changes in technology brings back a lot of memories for Dean, who points out that the decision to retire was not an easy one.
“I read my retirement letter at our December meeting. I had thought long and hard about it,” he said. “When I wrote the letter, it turned out to be about two paragraphs long, but it took me about two hours to write.”
There are many memories, he said as he looked around the fire hall on 4th Street in Albany.
“But as you get older, it’s harder to get up in the middle of the night and then work all day,” he said.
A new member of the department had come on in October and more applicants had been showing interest in joining the department said Dean, who originally planned to retire this May. With a cap of 25 spots on the department, he reconsidered his plan.
“Training was starting around the first of the year, so for the good of the department I decided to retire earlier to get someone new in and get them trained,” he said. “We are fortunate to stay at a full force here in Albany.”
In his years on the department, Dean has served as Secretary (1989-1994), Assistant Chief (1995-2000 and 2004) and Chief (2005-2013). Most recently he held the role of Safety Officer. He was also President of the Stearns County Fire Chiefs Association and was President of Albany’s Fire Relief Association.
Responding to the calls
“Most of the time when we get paged out, someone is in distress,” Dean said as he thought about the calls over the years. “Whether it was a medical or a house fire, barn fire, garage fire – someone needed help.”
Dean recalls barn fires where dairy cattle were lost – he says seeing someone’s livelihood in flames was hard to see.
In recent years, he recalls being onsite at large fires like the Albany Creamery apartment building fire in 2013, Sartell’s Verso Paper Mill fire in 2012 and Freeport’s Swany White Flour Mill fire in 2011.
“It’s hard to see people and families and businesses in those moments,” he said. “They stand there watching, and what do you do? You try to console them and get as much help for them as you can as quickly as possible.”
He says there are calls that he went on 25 or 30 years ago that still stick in his mind today. Some events, he says, will stay in his mind for eternity.
“There were calls where there were happy endings – lives saved, property saved,” he said. “And then there were the sad ones where something burned down or a life was lost. It’s just part of it.”
Safety for the department
“When I came on, gear was just gear,” Dean says about the lagging protection of firefighters. “You hoped you had the same boot size as the guy who retired because you got his gear.”
The gear now, Dean says, has vastly improved to keep firefighters safer. From protecting against higher temperatures to an increased number of air packs available for more backups.
Albany was one of the first departments in the state to get a thermal imaging helmet worth $25,000 – that came thanks to contributions from the Albany Lions and the Albany Jaycees. Other equipment updates include handheld thermal imaging devices, gas monitors, extrication equipment and new trucks.
Dean points out that while many things about the department have changed over the years, the support of the community has steadily strengthened.
“With community support and charitable gambling and donations, we have equipment that is second to none,” Dean said. “We want everyone to get back to the station from a call and get safely back to their families.”
If he could leave one piece of advice for his colleagues on the department, it is to be safe.
Current Fire Chief Gary Winkels points out that although Dean has retired, there must still be a special place in his heart for the department.
“He has given a lot of advice and support to other members over the years and continues to keep us in his thoughts,” Winkels said. “Several weeks back when we had multiple house fires in one week, Dean stopped by the fire hall after one of them just to see if there was anything we needed. When he saw the trucks go past his house for another fire, he sent me a text telling me to be safe and to get everyone safely back to their families. That means a lot.”
“Everyone talks about the sacrifice we make as firefighters,” Dean said. “But yet, our families make just as much of a sacrifice.”
Getting paged in the middle of the night, Dean says, left his wife sitting awake to wonder how the call was going or why it was taking much longer than it should have for him to return. Nights, weekends and holidays – emergencies happen anytime.
“Lots of meals get missed,” he said. “There are lots of times the families make the sacrifice right along with us. I also want to commend the business community for allowing their employees who serve to leave their job at a moment’s notice.”
Turning the pager off
Dean continues to get used to not being on-call as he was for so many years; turning the pager off and taking it out of his routine is not easy. He laughs as he recalls his wife telling him that she will only believe he has retired when that pager is no longer on his hip. Now, she can believe it.
“It’s been a really good experience in my life,” he said of his nearly 33 years on the department. “There have been lots of good memories and lots of good friendships formed – that’s why it’s so hard to walk away.”