Jim Feldner has been a volunteer with the St. Cloud Fire Department since 1962. / Aileen Andrews / The Reporter
ST. CLOUD — After 50 years as a volunteer with the St. Cloud Fire Department, Jim Feldner has no definitive plans to put his helmet on the shelf for good.
“I’ve really enjoyed being with the guys, helping neighbors and families,” the 71-year-old Feldner said. “The community has always been there for me and it’s nice to give back to them.”
Feldner began as a firefighter with the department in 1962, eventually earning election as the assistant chief in 1977 and chief in 1981. He was assistant chief again from 1999-2008 and has been a firefighter since 2009.
“He’s a very humble man,” current St. Cloud Fire Chief Scott Bink said. “I’ve known him for the past 22 years through work and he’s great.”
A lifelong St. Cloud resident, Feldner became interested in joining the department partially because of his father’s involvement.
“What I remember most is the day everyone thought I had learned enough and they gave me the hose line to lead the attack (and put out a fire),” Feldner recalled.
Because St. Cloud is a volunteer department, members give up their time to help the community and be trained as firefighters. There are 38 men on staff now, Feldner said. The Fire Department is separate from St. Cloud Emergency Medical Service staff.
Feldner said it was the other firefighters who gave him a push to make the transition from firefighter to assistant chief and then to chief.
“There was an opening and the guys told me they thought I’d be good for the job,” he said. The chief is elected by a vote of all department staff.
Looking back on his first fire as chief, Feldner said the thing he remembers most is realizing the dangers of the job.
“There was gas all over,” he said. “It was an arson and there were containers of gas all over, up and down the stairs and oxygen bottles blowing. The men I sent in to put out that fire had families and kids at home. That was hard for me to deal with. It sure didn’t make for a very good sleep that night.”
After nine years as chief and 13 years as assistant chief, Feldner decided to step down and focus his time solely on fighting fires.
“I gave up the chief position mostly because I was sick and tired of recruiting,” he explained.
Feldner plans to stay at the department until it gets too difficult, physically. He said he still goes on drills with the firefighters and helps during the week because it’s difficult to get enough volunteers on staff.
“I help where I can,” Feldner said. “Whether you’re paid or a volunteer, you’re still risking your life.”
Changes over the years
In his 50 years as a firefighter, Feldner has seen many changes and a lot of men come and go. The greatest change, he said, has been with equipment.
“The biggest thing is the protective gear from what we had then to what we have now,” he said.
Feldner remembers using leather helmets, rubber coats and plastic gloves. He also served at a time when there was no self-contained breathing apparatus to allow firefighters to work effectively when surrounded by smoke, gas and fire.
Vehicles have also changed. Firefighters used to collect and haul water in a tank on a pickup truck rather than hooking a hose up to a fire hydrant.
“Now no one has a tank like that anymore,” Feldner said. “We get a lot more water a lot quicker and pumps for the fire departments have changed. Not just the trucks, but what the trucks can do, too.”
Feldner said technology is better today. For instance, thermal imaging helps locate hot spots in a house fire, which helps to keep firefighters safer.
“There are phones in the trucks now and there’s a lot more you can do,” he said. “There are a bunch of things that help us be more efficient and have less damage to properties or injuries. Changes have helped us and made everything much safer.”
There are, however, a few things that remain the same.
“You still have to put the water on the fire,” Feldner said.
Samantha Strong can be reached at (920) 907-7910 or by email at email@example.com.