The Little Falls Fire Department displays the American flag in front of its fire hall on First Street Northeast. The department responded to 175 calls in 2021.

The last year has been a busy one for the Little Falls Fire Department.

Along with what Fire Chief Craig Seelen believed was a record number of calls in 2021, the department hosted several educational events, attended trainings and volunteered in the community throughout the year. He shared everything his department has been up to during his annual report to the Little Falls City Council.

LFFD responded to 175 total calls in 2021. Of those, 41 were in response to a fire, 11 were rescue and EMS calls, 17 were for a hazardous condition (with no fire), 38 were service calls, 45 were good intent calls, 23 were false alarms and the department was called out for one severe weather situation. The 175 total is up from 169 in 2020.

“We’ve been in kind of an upward trend,” Seelen said. “I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Part of that might be due to the change with me taking over from Chief (Mike) Nieman, as well. There could be a difference in record keeping. We’ll see how things play out the next few years to see if that trend continues. Nonetheless, it was a busy year.”

Seelen also made special mention of the mutual aid partnerships the department has built. LFFD has mutual aid agreements with all of the other departments in Morrison County, as well as neighboring cities such as Brainerd. It also has built up a partnership with Camp Ripley Fire since it began responding to incidents outside of the base.

Last year, LFFD gave mutual aid 18 times to five different departments. It received aid on 22 occasions from six different partnering agencies.

“We’ve been taking a step forward, I feel, in trying to build those partnerships with the neighboring communities,” Seelen said.

Another key duty of the LFFD is fire safety education. Seelen said getting out to schools to talk with children in their classrooms has been difficult during the past couple of years because of COVID-19. However, it was still able to give some talks by modifying the way it ran the educational courses, in some cases taking them outdoors.

That aspect is “slowly starting to come back,” he said.

Training is something Seelen said is “paramount” to everything the firefighters do. On the Little Falls Fire Department, only Seelen is a full-time employee. The other 32 firefighters in the department are paid on-call.

“They’re not there all of the time, so they need to train regularly to hone their skills to be able to provide the best level of service possible,” Seelen said. “The firefighters train at least twice a month, and then there’s extra trainings thrown in throughout the year, as well.”

LFFD receives funding for training, primarily, through the Minnesota Board of Fire Training and Education and Sourcewell. Each of those entities provides a per-firefighter amount to the department annually.

Last year, Seelen said LFFD received about $20,000 from both combined.

“Where that comes into play, we’re able to bring in professional trainers and props and different things like that to make the training more realistic and bring in new ideas,” he said.

Seelen added that the department is also able to utilize community partnerships for training exercises. One example is with St. Francis Health and Recreation. LFFD has used Hurrle Hall eight to 10 times over the last two years, according to Seelen, as a location to provide firefighters with hands-on, scenario-based training.

Two Little Falls firefighters — Joe Wiczek and Matt Hurt — retired in 2021. Wiczek put in 30 years with the department, while Hurt had to resign after 13 years because he was moving out of the community.

Even with those retirements, Seelen said the current roster of 32 firefighters keeps LFFD above the number it is required to employ in its contract with the townships. He added, however, that the department might be looking at hiring again “in the next year or so.”

He said the department’s fleet is in good shape, highlighted in 2021 by the fact it received a new Rescue 1 truck.

“It’s basically a toolbox on wheels,” Seelen said. “We have been able to consolidate equipment into that truck, and we’ve also been able to grow the amount of equipment we have — expand our capabilities somewhat.”

As an example, he said the department has been able to add ice and water rescue equipment. That was vital on April 3, when the Little Falls Fire Department was one of several local rescue crews that responded to help a woman whose kayak capsized on the Mississippi River.

“It was a perfect opportunity to utilize that new equipment,” Seelen said. “We’re very thankful that we had it.”

Above and beyond all of that, Seelen said volunteering and fundraising is “huge” for his department.

Each year, firefighters volunteer their time to serve as bell-ringers for the Salvation Army. The Fire Relief Association does an annual cash raffle and helps park cars during the Craft Fair.

In 2021, that resulted in a donation of approximately $25,000 to the department that was used for equipment to outfit the new rescue truck.

“That’s a great resource that we have,” Seelen said. “It saves the taxpayers money.”

Seelen was also pleased with the results of the Active 911 rollout throughout Morrison County. This was a joint endeavor among all fire departments and first response teams in the county, in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Office.

Active 911 allows LFFD and other teams to integrate with the computer-aided dispatch at the Sheriff’s Office. When dispatchers enter call data, they can press a button that sends out call information to firefighters’ phones and the tablets in their trucks.

“It gives us address, mapping information, lets us see who’s responding, who’s unavailable,” Seelen said. “We can also put things in there such as pre-plan information. All of the fire hydrants, we were able to — that was very simple — got a GIS file from the engineering department and, poof, we had 800 fire hydrants in there within 30 seconds.”

One thing the department is working on for the future, Seelen said, is an emergency operations plan (EOP) specifically for the city of Little Falls. Previously, it was believed the city fell under the county’s EOP. That plan, however, does not specify how the city would function in the event of a disaster.

“It doesn’t spell out what city public works does, what the police department does, what the finance officer does,” Seelen said. “It spells out what those county departments do. We need to have our own plan that spells out those things.”

LFFD is working with a consultant to draft a plan, with the expectations of that being implemented over the course of two or three years.

“I want to just close by saying what an honor it is to lead the group of firefighters that we have,” Seelen said. “They are dedicated, professional individuals that — they’re unbelievable. I couldn’t be more honored to work with them every day.”

Mayor Greg Zylka thanked Seelen for his leadership at the Fire Department. He said he often hears from other communities that they struggle to fill firefighter jobs. That is not the case in Little Falls.

“We’ve always had a good group of applicants to choose from, and even some good candidates that didn’t even make the cut,” Zylka said.

Council Member Frank Gosiak said he was able to watch the LFFD and other crews work during the aforementioned ice rescue, April 3. He was impressed with the job they did in rescuing the woman from a dangerous situation.

“There’s a lot of communities that, they’re lacking,” Gosiak said. “They can’t get members. Little Falls is one of the few that keeps a strong, full force in there. They must be doing something right if people want to join that.”

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