Wanting to be part of the community, especially through helping and volunteering them, is always a noble pursuit. For some, this means community cleanup for helping out at the food shelf. For others, this is joining the local firefighters to save people during what’s likely one of the worst days of their life. And that’s not even talking about the other aspects of the job.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Shawn Klein, a Watertown firefighter who just retired after 24 years with the department. “I miss it everyday and I can’t wait to go back.”

Klein started with the department back in 1995 when he was just 21 years old. His father was a firefighter before him, which is what attracted him to the position, and helped him understand the commitment. Readers may know that a couple weeks ago Klein was before the Watertown City Council being thanked for his service. One thing that was hard to hear during Klein’s speech was the thanking of his sons.

“They’ve been through hell and back with me,” he said. “I’m glad for them everyday.”

A single father, Klein didn’t shy away from talking about some of the hardships of being a firefighter. He’s missed birthdays, Christmas, school events, and more because of his work. Even then, he was supported by both his home family and what he called his fire family. And what made all that hardship worth it to him was knowing that despite it all, he was helping people who really needed it.

“When you get called, someone is having the worst day of their life,” he said. “They’re losing their house, maybe their pet is inside or their kid or parent, and you’re running in there to help them.”

Klein isn’t the only firefighter to say this, either. Hubie Widmer, who’s been with Watertown for 39 years, echoed the sentiment.

“I’ve been called afterward and thanked for all the help,” he said. “When I worked law enforcement, people aren’t always excited to see you. As a firefighter, they know you’re only there to help and are relieved to see you. It really keeps a guy going.”

Widmer joined because he was simply interested in learning about firefighting, and despite two years of training before he was officially accepted onto the force, he stated he hasn’t regretted it since. Even after he quit law enforcement, he stayed with the department.

And in that time, it’s changed quite a bit. Widmer was one of the first in Watertown to receive emergency medical training. Klein came in knowing this skill, but even in his time it’s changed in the name of safety and efficiency.

“Used to be that you could run into a fire hundred times,” he said. “Now you go through two air tanks and you’re done. You need to rehab for a bit.”

Firefighting is no easy task. It causes huge amounts of strain on the firefighters’ bodies and hearts, which is why it’s not uncommon to hear about a firefighter aged 30-50 having a heart attack as a result of this strain, according to Klein. Not to mention the carcinogens they regularly encounter from running into burning houses.

And yet, both Widmer and Klein have never regretted it a bit. Widmer even stated that the changes are just something you adapt to as a firefighter.

In fact, those changes may have had an effect on the recruiting, according to Ryan Schroeder, fire chief.

“A challenge that we face is we aren’t just attending to fires anymore,” he said. “We at all emergency calls, we have more public relations requests, more training, so I think just the business of the job has increased a lot from what it was in the past.”

Now, this isn’t a job for everyone, but there is still a shortage of firefighters nationwide. According to all the firefighters interviewed, it’s a commitment of the utmost importance. Between hundreds of hours of training, public relations, and just the general emergency calls coming at any and all times of day, it takes a 100 percent commitment.

“I’d tell anyone interested to put a lot of thought into it,” said Widmer. “If you’re still interested, talk to us.”

“For anyone who isn’t sure, we do one on one talks with interested folks or community information sessions in March,” Schroeder added.

But the camaraderie and feeling of trust among their peers, the knowledge that they’re helping people, and serving their community have made it worth it to all three.

Klein himself stated that, despite retiring from Watertown, he plans on joining the Waconia fire department to continue working. One of the biggest rewards to him is training in the new recruits as well as seeing the fire family join together in mentorship. Widmer also stated that mentoring the new recruits was its own reward.

“You just have to try to do the best job,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”

For anyone interested in joining Watertown’s fire department, or just learning more about the job, email watertownsecretary@ci.watertown.mn.us to schedule a one-on-one chat. For NYA, visit https://www.cityofnya.com/become-a-firefighter/ and fill out the application to see if you qualify to become a firefighter.

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