Minnesota Soybean Business

Answering the call

March-April 2021

We never want to need them, but we sure are grateful for them when we do. Volunteer Emergency Medical Service (EMS) professionals comprise almost 87% of all fire departments in Minnesota and cover more than 200 square miles when they answer the call.

In rural communities, farmers are often the ones answering the sound of a buzzing pager at 3 a.m. to respond to a car accident or heart attack – showing up to serve the people in their communities as first responders during their darkest times of need.

Part of the community

Trevore Brekken, a director with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, joined the Crookston Firefighters Association more than 18 years ago and has never looked back.

“I was looking to give back to the community,” says Brekken, who farms near Crookston. “My brother started two years before me, and now my nephew is on the department. It is kind of emotional having my brother and nephew serving with me. You look out for their safety as well as your own.”

For Brekken, volunteering as a firefighter is all about helping people, even when a call doesn’t turn out as planned.

“It’s not for everybody. I’ve seen stuff I wish I wouldn’t have. But you do the best you can, and you help the people you can,” Brekken says. “Even when the call doesn’t turn out good, you are still helping the family by being there.”

As a farmer himself, he understands being hypervigilant when it comes to farm safety because he has witnessed too many accidents in his time as a firefighter.

Trevore Brekken farms in Polk County and sits on the board of both the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Ag Innovation Campus.

“The simple thing of driving a tractor – people don’t slow down or move over, or their head is buried in their phone,” he says. “We’ve seen an increase in just the number of extractions we’ve had to do in vehicles in the last six years. I used to cut out one a year and now it’s a dozen. People need to look up, and farmers need to be even more aware.”

Fire departments, such as the one Brekken serves on, often play an integral role in the community – serving as not only an emergency service, but a community fixture for parades, events and more. Brekken sees his role as more than just fire and medical calls.

“The fire department does a toy drop for the kids during our community days, we donate bikes for Night to Unite, we help with Toys for Tots. It’s rewarding to see the smiles on kids’ faces,” he says.

Brekken says the volunteer fire family is a unique group. Firefighters look out for each other, other departments and their families.

“You’re all there for the same reason. All the people are watching everybody’s back, and there is so much respect there. You can talk to anybody about the call. It’s your other family,” he says.

Brekken agrees that more farmers should consider volunteering even if it means working an extra hour or two in the field because you left for a call. Like many rural departments, the Crookston department struggled to fill their last two open positions, only receiving two applicants.

“It gets hard to fill the boots” he says.

All in the family

Betsy Jensen didn’t expect her daughter to consider the health care field after graduation, but serving together on the Stephen Volunteer Ambulance Service may have swayed her daughter’s career path.

“You have to be 16 to be an Emergency Medical Responder, so Holly’s been on ambulance runs with me since she joined,” Jensen said. “My son, Conner, also served on the ambulance with me too.”

Jensen considered becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) after her father’s death from cancer. Her father also served as a volunteer fireman while Jensen was growing up.

“My dad’s cancer diagnosis and handling his care is when I decided I could handle the medical aspect of it,” she says. “Very rarely is serving on the ambulance blood and needles, though.”

Jensen and her husband, Brian, own and operate Jensen Seed. The couple sells wheat, sugar beet, barley and soybean seed. Operating a farm and business in their rural community means Jensen often knows the patients she sees in the ambulance.

Minnesota farmer Betsy Jensen was inspired to become an EMT after caring for her late father following his cancer diagnosis

“It’s very fulfilling operating in a small town because you know the patients. I do get phone calls thanking me, or they were told I was the one holding C-spine for the car accident,” she says. “It really is instant gratification knowing who you are helping. I can’t imagine not giving back to the community in this way.”

Rural Minnesota requires one in every 34 residents to fill leadership positions compared to the metro area, which is one for every 143 residents, according to the University of Minnesota. Recruiting volunteers to serve is one of the biggest issues facing rural EMS systems. Jensen jokes that she has to get creative with her recruitment techniques.

“I usually sucker them in with, ‘You only have to be a driver,’” Jensen says. “Then I turn them into EMTs and make them do all the medical things, and they usually say, ‘That it isn’t that bad.’”

Jensen says that serving on the ambulance service truly is about helping your neighbor even when it can be difficult on your own schedule.

“It can be tough – we get an ambulance call on a Friday night, so I get three hours of sleep, wake up and have training for eight hours on Saturday,” Jensen says. “But something always happens that reminds you why you do it in the first place.”

The big reward

Holding titles of captain for 18 years and chief for six, Pat Sullivan never gave volunteering on the Franklin Fire Department a second thought when was first approached to join.

“My mom and dad were involved in the community – the Lions Club and the civic club. I joined the Jaycees Club,” he says. “The people I was with were the active families in the community. It was normal for me to want to volunteer.”

Sullivan is secretary of the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, representing Districts 5 and 6. He farms with his family and recently retired from serving as an EMT, but he continues to serve as a volunteer firefighter.

“Our roster hasn’t been full for the last five to six years,” Sullivan says. “They don’t think they have the time to do it, but they do. Nobody has the time, but you can make the time.”

Rural fire departments continue to struggle with the rising costs of fire equipment. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Fire Administration, costs of firefighting equipment have increased more than fivefold in the last 30 years.

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Pat Sullivan is a longtime director with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council.

“Our air packs might be 30 years old, or the bunker gear is out of date because the funds just aren’t there. Our own department has put in for the same FEMA grant five times to update our air packs, but for the rural departments, if we could just get half of what we need,” Sullivan says. “At the end of the day we want to be safe, but someone has to use that equipment to save someone’s life, and they are going to do it because it’s what they have.”

Sullivan encourages anyone interested in joining to fill out an application but recognizes the time commitment it takes when someone first joins. New firefighters commit to a time-intensive training schedule when they first join, completing more than 140 hours of Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 training.

“It is a big-time commitment for the new person coming in, so the initial commitment is fairly large. We beg and plead to anybody who can do it – we need everybody we can,” he says.

Sullivan says the sacrifices outweigh the lost free time. Serving his community is what matters: “It’s rewarding when you can do something good, and help people during a rough situation.”

‘Heart and soul’

Most people only consider one area of the EMS system when they join. Not Robert Roelofs. The Blue Earth County farmer became a jack-of-all trades in the first-responder family, serving as a law enforcement officer, firefighter and EMT.

“I was an EMT since college and started working in law enforcement after graduating from Alexandria Tech,” he says. “I joined the fire department when I moved home after graduation.”

Roelofs acknowledges that he saw some of the worst things during his time in uniform as a law enforcement officer, but being the familiar face by serving the area he grew up in made it rewarding, too.

“When they see faces they recognize in uniform, they relax. A familiar face helps a lot,” Roelofs says. “It can get tough working in a small town to deal with it all, but if they know you and who you are, it helps in the moment.”

Roelofs retired from his time in law enforcement three years ago but continues to serve as a volunteer firefighter for the Vernon Center Fire Department. He also serves on the Minnesota Farm Bureau Board of Directors, along with his township board and several other committees.

Blue Earth County farmer Robert Roelofs has been an EMT since college.

“We care about the communities we farm in,” he says. “We want to give back.”

In rural areas, local fire departments often have to work together, calling in mutual aid for structure fires, complex or large accidents and more. According to the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, fire departments respond free of charge to assist other departments as part of mutual aid agreements.

“With smaller fire services, we help each other out. We call in mutual aid sometimes for manpower, to haul water. Or we need extra tankers for water since small towns don’t have fire hydrants, or you can’t hook up to one due to failing infrastructure,” Roelofs says. “A pretty good-sized structure fire might need five to eight fire department to handle it, and it can be a whole day.”

As a farmer himself, Roelofs understands the complexity of agricultural emergency calls. He remembers the Northrop grain elevator explosion in 2018, when 59 different fire departments responded and worked to put out the fire.

“I was there for 20 hours in minus-20 weather. It took over 60 hours for the fire to get put out,” he says.

He is no stranger to grain elevator fires though. He responded when the grain elevator in his hometown of Vernon Center had an explosion that blew the top off and injured six people.

For many small, rural communities, the building that houses the volunteer fire department sits on main street, making it a mainstay in the community for pancake breakfasts, fundraisers and more.

“There is good stuff that makes you keep doing it. You care about them, their families and the community,” Roelofs says. “The fire department is part of community pride. When you enter a small town, what does it have – a fire department. They are part of the heart and soul of the community.”


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