76 years of fighting fires; 3 generations of Christiansons part of JFD
For possibly the first time since its founding in 1884, three generations of one family are serving at one time with the Jamestown Fire Department. Battalion Chief Gordon "Gordie" Christianson, his son Glenn, a fire department mechanic, and grand...
For possibly the first time since its founding in 1884, three generations of one family are serving at one time with the Jamestown Fire Department.
Battalion Chief Gordon “Gordie” Christianson, his son Glenn, a fire department mechanic, and grandson Grant, an apprentice firefighter, view their service as a community good much like someone in a civic organization.
“I am pretty much the longest-serving everything at the department, longer than everyone else,” Gordie said.”Most guys hit 20 years and retire. I hit 20 and still felt young and felt good and decided to stay.”
There are other brothers and father-son volunteer members serving among the 36 current members, but this is likely the first three-generation family in the history of the department, said JFD Fire Chief Jim Reuther.
“Add that up and it’s a lot of commitment from just one family,” said JFD Fire Chief Reuther said. “We would be very hard pressed without that kind of commitment.”
Gordy starts his 49th year with the department in August. His own father served as the Watford City fire chief, and the town’s siren activation equipment was set up in the family kitchen. His mother rang the siren when there was a fire.
“Firefighting was kind of engrained in me,” Gordy said. “I was at the big fires watching when dad was chief and that was inspiring.”
Gordy was just 21 and working as the Jamestown city assessor when friends encouraged him to join the JFD in 1966.
“They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Gordy said.
The 21 volunteer firemen at the time voted Gordy in. He said the department then operated pretty much the same, except that the firefighters use their masks and equipment much more now than they did back in the day.
The biggest fire of Gordy’s career was the Gladstone Hotel in 1968. The turn-of-the-century building was starting renovations and a plumber’s cutting torch sent a piece of hot pipe onto a bed in an upstairs apartment. Within an hour the unit was in flames.
“He (the plumber) doused it with water and went to lunch,” Gordy said.
The quarter-block, three-story building was the biggest hotel between the Twin Cities and Seattle and burned down to the basement.
The safe belonging to Stutsman County State Bank was the only item not burned in the fire and police guarded it for two weeks until it was cool enough to open, Gordy said. Everything inside the safe survived the fire.
Gordy served as a firefighter and then a lieutenant. Chief Mel Kachel promoted him directly to deputy chief without ever having to serve as captain.
After 20 years Gordy stepped down as deputy chief to allow another officer the chance to gain more experience. He stepped back into the role for two months after the sudden death of Deputy Chief Jerry Kainz in 2014.
Gordy said he pondered retiring but agreed to stay on as battalion chief in charge of dispatch while everyone is out on call. He responds to calls by going to the station and handling the logistics and making sure personnel and equipment are getting to where they need to be.
“If anything is needed then I have the authority to order the men to do this or that, or to take care what needs to be done at the fire,” Gordy said. “If they need equipment then I can get it there and know where to find it and all that kind of stuff.”
Applying this knowledge and experience in a needed capacity, and being able to serve with his son and grandson are why Gordy stays on.
“That does make me feel kind of good about it,” Gordy said. “If my one daughter lived in town then she would be in the department too, but she is an IT specialist living in Fargo.”
Gordy was nicknamed “batman” by the firefighters, a play on words for his battalion chief title.
Reuther said there is no mandatory age for firefighters. As long as they are healthy and can do their job without putting themselves or others at unnecessary risk then they can stay in the department.
“As long as I feel good and my health isn’t affected, I will probably stay on the department until I die,” Gordy said.
With his 50th anniversary at the department coming up on Aug. 21, 2016, Gordy said he plans to dig into the incident logs to tally up just how many calls he has responded to all these years.
Glenn Christianson recalls his father Gordy getting up to answer holiday and late-night fire calls. Glenn also grew up knowing all of the firefighters but didn’t dream of becoming one. It was just the natural thing to do when he reached the minimum age of 21 in 1987.
“I didn’t think about it much,” he said. “I was pushed a little but just joined.”
Glenn was a volunteer firefighter for 10 years and was a primary driver. He recalls being in the department for just a few months when he was instructed to drive a truck he had never even been in before to a fire.
Those skills with the department vehicles and equipment led to his full-time city position as the fire station mechanic. Now he repairs and maintains station vehicles, equipment and the grounds.
“Altogether, I have been with the department for 28 years now,” Glenn said.
The biggest fire during Glenn’s service was the Orlady Building fire on Dec. 9, 2005. He recalls that Gordy was incident commander that day and may have saved some lives.
Two firefighters were about to enter the basement where the blaze began. By then the fire had completely consumed the lower level, and Gordy quickly called to them to get back.
Soon after the first floor gave way and the flames shot straight up through the attic, Gordy said. The force blew out the front windows and flames ran up the outside of the building.
“The police got the residents out and businesses out before the fire department arrived, which also probably saved lives,” Gordy added.
Grant Christianson, 22, works for the city Water Department. He joined JFD in March and is considered an apprentice firefighter until he completes training with the North Dakota Firefighter’s Association. Even still, he responded to a rare eight calls in his first two weeks alone.
Grant also recalls being raised in a firefighter’s household, and he got to know the volunteers and the culture of the fire station.
“I used to get left here on the bench at the station when they (Glenn and Gordy) went off to fight fires,” Grant said.
It was part of his life, and Grant said it was a natural step to join when he was finished with school, was working and old enough. As a new firefighter Grant will spend his probationary period observe firefighting technique while learning the vehicles and equipment along with cleaning them up after the calls.
“There is so much involved and you can’t learn it all in a short period of time,” Reuther said. “It takes months and years.”
JFD firefighters and training
There are currently four companies in JFD. All members are trained firefighters, including the first female firefighter who joined in 2009.
Company 1 specializes in diving and water rescue. Company 2 specializes in hazardous materials response; Company 3 is general response; and Company 4 is rescue and auto extraction.
Most firefighters are CPR trained and about eight are first responder qualified. Five more are airport rescue firefighter qualified.
The members are volunteers and paid $19.54 per hour when called to an incident. The officers and drivers used to be paid more than firefighters, but Reuther said a decision was made long ago to pay everyone the same rate.
“It helps, but people are not joining to make money,” Reuther said. “We do not consider this as a second job when there are no guaranteed hours.”
A critical incident stress debriefing is available following events resulting in serious injuries or fatalities. The JFD is also looking for a chaplain.
Family support is also crucial to the mission. “Partner appreciation nights” are a way for department members to thank their families for understanding the duty and disruptions to daily life.
Jo Christianson, Gordy’s wife, said families of volunteer firemen understand that when the pagers go off they drop everything and respond.
“I have been left sitting alone in a restaurant more than once,” Jo said. “Yet I am proud. It is a commitment to families and the community.”
The community and local businesses have been very supportive and does appreciate what the JFD does, Gordy added. The volunteer firefighters save the city millions annually by not having to hire a full-time department.
“It’s a commitment, and it takes a certain type of person to do this,” Reuther added. “We have a good group of volunteers with long years of service and we don’t see a lot of turnover.”
Reuther is in charge of fire investigations, and ensures that department members are trained in fire suppression, hazardous materials response, vehicle extrication, water rescue and recovery, fire code enforcement and provides public fire education.
To join today, volunteers first past an agility test, physical and an interview. The ideal volunteer firefighter is someone who is not going to cut and run, Gordy said.
“They have to be dependable,” he added. “Some people want to join and go through the training and then decide it’s not for them, and that is all right.”
Reuther said another strength of a volunteer department is the array of professions and trades experience that the members possess. Any given call can present unique challenges and that combined knowledge is helpful, he added.
“In just about every situation we have someone with some kind of expertise to help us mitigate the problem,” Reuther said. “So that is a huge benefit.”
The post Sept. 11 environment has helped to ensure the JFD is properly equipped. As a grant writer, Reuther has obtained funding from the Department of Homeland Security to provide new hazardous materials response gear, air packs and other equipment totaling over $75,000.
Most other needs have been met with additional city and community support, Reuther said. JFD would like to replace the 1984 ladder truck, however, as it is nearing the end of its lifecycle.
“Overall, the equipment is the best it’s ever been,” Reuther said.“We’ve got a lot of support.”
Sun reporter Tom LaVenture can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at email@example.com