Firefighting runs in Menno familyCurrent chief is third in Simonsen line to hold title.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
MENNO — If inspiration is truly where you find it, three generations of the Simonsen family didn’t have to look far. C
larence Simonsen, 96, his son Roger, 67, and Roger’s son Scott, 45, all have served as chief of the Menno Volunteer Fire Department. Clarence’s late father, Simon “Sam” Simonsen, never served as chief but was a firefighter. It’s an unbroken line of service they can trace back to the early 20th century. Discounting the typical fantasy of boys who want to be firemen, the Simonsens said to a man that their inspiration came through firsthand examples. All remember their dads dashing off to countless fires or accident calls as they were growing up. Becoming a firefighter was just expected.
Roger, who also followed his dad into the plumbing business, said he began working on the town’s pumpers when he was 17 years old.
“In those days, we used the pumper to clear out the sewers during the summer months,” he said.
Roger manned the control panel on the truck, a job usually reserved for the company’s engineer during fire emergencies. Under the department’s by-laws, the minimum age for department membership was 18 years old, but Roger’s facility with the pumper controls earned him a dispensation and allowed him to sign on a year early.
He will celebrate 50 years with the department next month. He’s considering retirement, but there’s no rush.
“It’s one of those organizations you get into where you really feel like you’re doing something for the community,” he said.
Both Roger and Clarence have also served as the town’s mayor.
Clarence retired from the department at age 89, after 65 years of service, mostly “because it was time,” and not because of any disability. His retirement coincided with the 65th anniversary of his marriage to wife Ruth. They have since celebrated their 72nd anniversary and are going strong. They regularly go dancing in Fort Randall on Friday nights. Early days
Clarence’s dad, Simon “Sam” Simonsen, came to Menno in 1915 from Denmark and served as a city employee and police chief for 19 years. He also pitched in as a volunteer firefighter, but never became chief.
Sam served with the department in the days when volunteers used a handpulled hose cart. They rolled the hose to the nearest fire hydrant and then ran it back to the fire scene. The department still has that cart, which was refurbished by inmates at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, and it’s regularly trotted out for parades.
Clarence started with the department in 1940, when he was 25.
Prior to the introduction of sirens, volunteers responded to a fire bell during emergencies. The bell had two ropes and its clapper was yanked rapidly by two men to signal a fire, Clarence recalled.
“In those days, we had a lot more fires in town than we do today,” Clarence said, “Two and three a week was nothin’.”
Roger said many of Menno’s homes in those days had old knob-and-tube wiring that deteriorated and caused fires, and many homes still used wood for heating, which meant lots of chimney fires.
The fires happened when creosote — a combustible, tarry substance that forms on the inside of chimneys when fires aren’t burned hot enough — ignited.
The danger came from chimneys in poor condition that could allow fire to spread to the inside of a home, or hot pieces of creosote could fly out and start fires on roofs or elsewhere.
“We usually poured baking soda down the chimney to put it out,” said Clarence. The soda would deplete oxygen and starve the fire.
“Once the fire was out we’d run a log chain down the chimney to knock off the creosote,” he said.
Water was never used unless a structure was threatened, Roger explained, because pouring water down a hot chimney could severely damage the stack and create more problems.
“Chimney fires can be like blowtorches,” Roger said. “We would usually toss a road flare down the chimney.”
The flare burned up the oxygen and put out the fire.
“There were some times when we left the chimney fires burn themselves out under supervision.”
Scott joined the department in 1988 and was elected chief in January. He recalled the tiny kernel of worry he always brushed aside whenever he saw his dad dash off to a fire. The concern is still there, but in a different way.
“It makes you nervous every time anyone ‘bunkers up,’” he said, referring to the act of putting on fire gear, “but other than a few bumps and bruises, we’ve never had anyone seriously hurt.”
All the Simonsens agree that equipment has become more plentiful, effective and sophisticated through the years.
When Clarence signed on, Menno’s firehouse was in a single-bay garage beside city hall — police vehicles are kept there now— which housed the city’s 1930 International fire truck.
When the fire bell rang, volunteers showed up and piled onto the truck. The first three got the fire gear and the rest had to work in the clothes they wore.
The International would then tear off to a fire with three volunteers seated side-by-side on the rear platform, their legs swinging freely over the pavement as the truck zoomed to the fire scene at a top speed of 30 mph.
“It worked pretty good,” Clarence said. “The swaying of our legs helped to balance out the water that swished around when we went around a turn.”
Everyone rides inside today, Scott said.
Old leather fire helmets were eventually replaced with fire-resistant molded plastic models with face shields and flame-resistant hoods. Rubber fire coats also were ditched for modern bunker gear.
Breathing equipment has also improved.
“Our first system was a Chemox gas mask system, which was terrible,” Roger said.
The system had a canister, which had to be punctured to create a chemical reaction to release oxygen. Other systems were used over the years, but current pressurized breathing masks work well, he said. Roger estimates that equipping each firefighter costs about $1,500.
‘One big family’
“We used to get about 44 fires a year,” Roger said, “and now we’re lucky if we get a dozen.”
Newer homes, better and safer farm equipment, and improved home wiring have greatly reduced chances of fire damages.
There have been times — the occasional destroyed building, or worse, a life that couldn’t be saved — when they wished they could have done more. The gas explosion that blew apart her home and killed resident Gail Guthmiller in August 2010 was one of those disastrous times.
“You couldn’t find a nicer gal. It hurts,” Clarence said after that tragedy. “A small town like this is just one big family. What happens to one of us hurts us all.”
Clarence had also worked for nearly 60 years at the funeral home next door that was damaged by the blast.
“Gas explosions are all bad,” said Roger, who also serves as county coroner, “and that one really rattled the town.”
He said the power of any flammable gas must be respected.
“A gallon of liquid petroleum gas has the explosive power of 11 sticks of dynamite,” he said.
Menno built its current fire hall in 1999 when former Gov. Bill Janklow made grant money available that helped pay for it.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Roger, who was chief at the time, “and between the city and the fire department, we got it built.”
The 7,200 square-foot structure has seven bays.
Scott, who works for the state Department of Transportation, is proud of his station and equipment. He said there are at least 10 firefighters younger than 30 and some others in their 40s, which is a good sign for the future.
“We need a new rescue truck, but other than that,” he said, “we’re looking pretty good