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Fire Chief Chris Nelson addresses a Waconia Chamber of Commerce group (Photo courtesy Waconia Chamber of Commerce)

Did you know that Waconia’s fire department is staffed primarily by people who could be your neighbors? People who leave their jobs, families and the comfort of their homes to respond to your emergency?

Did you know that 96 percent of the calls for service this year had nothing to do with fires and 12 percent of calls are for false alarms?

Fire Chief Chris Nelson shared those insights and offered a plea for recruits recently at the Waconia Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon. Nelson explained to local business leaders that while calls are up – they are at 769 so far this year compared to 576 all of last year – the department is 14 firefighters short of what is needed to meet growing demands for service.

“We have 26 members, we could use 40,” he said, urging Chamber members to encourage their employees to consider service. The Waconia Fire Department especially needs day responders, according to Nelson.

The local fire chief, who joined the department in February, also shared some background about himself, the department’s recruitment efforts and emergency response trends in the service area.

Nelson has been a fireman for more than 25 years. He has worked as a fire captain for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, as a fire marshal in the Bakken oil fields near Williston, N.D., and as a fire chief for U.S. Steel mining operations in northern Minnesota.

In terms recruiting, Nelson said one mistake the department made is to take the word volunteer off the fire station walls.

“A lot of people think we’re full-time department, we’re not,” he said. Most firefighters are paid on-call volunteers with support from a small duty crew.

Another oversight traditionally in the fire industry, Nelson said, has been not asking women to join, essentially missing out on fully half of potential recruits. The Waconia Fire Department currently has only one female member.

Nelson said he hopes to change that, noting that females bring special attributes to emergency response situations.

“An elderly woman who has slipped in the shower or a three-year-old who needs medical attention doesn’t want to see a big, loud guy like me; they want a female presence,” he said. And Nelson notes that these non-fire incidents are making up a greater percentage of emergency calls coming into the fire department.

Nelson also is reaching out to young people through the schools to inform them about how the department works and encourage them about opportunities for service when they reach 18 years of age. And he’s working with a local Explorer’s group, a kind of firefighters’ version of Scouts of America.

The group, made up of boys and girls, meets Sunday evenings at the fire station to go over emergency response measures like CPR. They also try on fire gear, and recently used the department’s extraction tool to play a game of Jenga.

In response to recent trends, the department also is exploring a possible firefighter reserve function – recruits who wouldn’t be fully trained as firefighters, but could provide support and assistance for emergency calls.

Individuals interested in fire department service may contact the Waconia Fire Department at 952-442-2316, or go to the Fire Department page on the city’s website, www.waconia.org, for application information.

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