Hard hats and fire helmets
Red Lake Electric Cooperative boasts six employees on the local volunteer fire department.
At the tail end of a hot and crispy summer, a small group of Red Lake Electric Cooperative (RLEC) lineworkers was hitting the dusty fields southwest of Red Lake Falls, Minn. The task of the day was to move a line of power poles farther from a farmer’s crops and closer to the rural road ditch.
For that particular crew, ditch work was becoming a recurring theme – from moving wires to cigarette fires.
“This year it seems like those calls happen a lot,” said RLEC journeyman lineworker Jordon Gervais.
“It’s just so dry,” RLEC operations manager Steve Conely responded. “We typically get about 25 total fire calls per year.”
Conely leads the RLEC crew in more ways than one. In addition to his role as operations manager, he also serves as the assistant fire chief of the Red Lake Falls Volunteer Fire Department, which includes a total of six RLEC employees on the volunteer roster.
That’s right. The co-op makes up a quarter of the local fire team.
“What I’ve heard is linemen and people in this industry are good at being on call, and they’re good at making difficult choices,” Conely said. “That makes them good firemen.”
Conely and Gervais are joined on the fire team by journeyman lineworkers Darcy Cardinal, Sam Pahlen and Brett Knott, as well as RLEC engineering technician Chris Knott. The six were led to the fire department by different paths, at different times in their lives. But the same idea brought them to the fire hall.
“I see it as, it’s a small community. We’re not just one thing. Sam, he assists with youth hockey,” Cardinal said, gesturing to Pahlen in the bucket truck, “and I’m a hockey coach. We don’t have the numbers for a lot of people to do just one thing.”
History of heroism
This isn’t RLEC’s first cohort of community caretakers. When Conely was hired in 2001, there were already three co-op employees on the fire squad. He began volunteering soon after.
In the Red Lake Falls fire hall, chatting with his fellow firefighters, he glanced over his shoulder at the photo gallery of bygone fire crews. “The generation before us, it was the line foremen, in that first go-around, back in the ‘40s,” he said.
“One of the initial Red Lake board directors was Great-Grandpa, and he was on the fire department in the ‘30s, I think,” Chris Knott added.
The tradition of service bridges eras and connects families in Red Lake Falls. Cardinal’s father and brother, as well as Gervais’ grandfather and uncle, were also involved in the fire department, and three of the current co-op volunteers are cousins.
“It goes along with how you’ve grown up and how you’re taught,” Conely said, noting that all six grew up in or near Red Lake Falls. “If your parents stopped and helped somebody alongside the road back in the day, you probably still do that today.”
“I just wanted to do it, and you pretty much know everyone in the department,” Pahlen said. “They had an opening, and I asked to join.”
Pahlen joined the fire department the same day as Gervais eight years ago – two years after they started at the co-op together. Between the six men, there are approximately 60 years of collective service to the fire department. When you add that to the time they’ve spent with each other at work over the years, you would think they’d grow tired of one other.
Not the case.
“It’s kind of funny – we actually do things AFTER this all together,” Gervais said. In fact, five of them were hitting the golf course later that night. “We’re kind of a family at work, so when you come here to the fire hall, you know who you’re dealing with. You get to learn each other so well that we kind of know what each other is thinking.”
“They really understand each other,” Conely said. “This group recently responded to a fatal car accident, and our fire chief commented on how well these guys worked together through that, through a terrible situation.”
Other members of the fire department recognize that lineworkers come equipped with additional skills and insight. They’re the first ones to disconnect power during a house fire and they’re familiar with the adrenaline rush of having limited time to fix a dangerous problem. The urge to serve isn’t reserved to Red Lake Falls. Nearly every co-op in the Minnkota Power Cooperative system contains at least one firefighter or first responder, and many have multiple.
RLEC leaders see what their team is capable of. Conely says management has always been supportive of his crew’s dual role, and none of the current volunteers plan on returning their fire helmets anytime soon.
“If you want a good, strong community, you have to be a part of it,” he said. “That may not be the reason we all started, but as you do it, you see more community benefits.”
MAIN IMAGE: The Red Lake Electric Cooperative team is ready to respond. Left to right: Darcy Cardinal, Sam Pahlen, Steve Conely, Chris Knott, Jordon Gervais and Brett Knott. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)