“Fireman Dave” is how many schoolchildren refer to Dave Lenzmeier, who retired as Fridley’s last paid on-call fire captain earlier this year.
Lenzmeier led countless safety camps and classes during his 33 years with the department. He always wore his firefighting garb, and he knew how to make his talk entertaining. For starters, Lenzmeier would let the children hang on to the fire hose or practice crawling on the floor, where the “good air is.” “I tried to be methodical about what would happen,” he said, adding that the idea was to make the situation less intimidating. It seemed to work.
At the grocery store, children often will point him out to their parents, saying, “That’s him,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling, being able to share with people how to react in a fire or another emergency.” That’s what’s kept him in this kind of work for so long. Whether you’re talking to children, doing drills with firefighters or trying to rescue someone on the scene, firefighting “gets into your blood,” he said.
Lenzmeier, 62, was honored at a retirement party last week. We talked to him about some of the changes, highlights and rewards of the job. His résumé also includes a stint at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and service with the U.S. Navy.
Q: How did you get your start with the fire department?
A: In the Navy, everyone goes to fire school. …
When I got done with the Navy, I saw an ad in the newspaper about the department needing someone. So, I came over and started talking to people here.
It was an easy transition, with the same concepts, the teamwork.
Q: What was your favorite aspect of the job?
A: My personal favorite was working with the children at safety camps and classes, getting them comfortable with how I look and sound with all of the fire equipment on. So, in the case of a fire, if they ever heard my breathing through a respirator, they wouldn’t run away. They’d know to come to me, that I’d scoop them up, put them underneath my tummy, and we’d get out of there together. I tried to instill in them that the fireman is there to help. Also, I’d tell them to stay low and crawl, not stand up where the smoke is. The good air is on the ground. I’d tell them to make their mouth into a vacuum cleaner.
Q: What might be an example of one of your most challenging runs?
A: Once after an extreme storm, a creek got flowing and it washed out a trestle for the railroad. The train went nose first into the creek. The leaking fuel had to be contained so it wouldn’t get into the Mississippi River. Our role was to try to make sure we get the train crew out as safely as possible and mitigate any damage caused by leaking fuels. That was probably about 15 years ago.
Q: What is the most unusual call you’ve gotten?
A: You see everything, the goofiest things. People call because their cat is in a tree. Kids will put their heads through wrought-iron railings and get stuck. Sometimes people will accidentally spray dangerous chemicals on themselves. I’ve given people some very cold showers.
There’s a story about rescuing a dog from Locke Lake. The owners tried to get it out by paddling over in a canoe. The dog had gone out on the ice and fallen through. It was a big sheepdog-type, like Rin Tin Tin with a lot of hair. I went out through the ice chunks with a rope on me. I grabbed the dog and then the others pulled us back.
Q: You wore a wig and a dress for a memorable rescue drill. Can you describe that?
A: That was a spoof I pulled on John Berg, the fire chief. I knew it was a rooftop rescue and that we were going to use the aerial truck to do it. A fireman was going to be at the top of the training tower. I put a little color in it, with the costume, just to make it lighter. That also made it more realistic for the people watching us. Nobody knew who was up there, just that it was someone who looked like a woman. The firefighters had to get a ladder to get me out. We had fun with it. Berg laughed like crazy, but it was a training drill at the same time, so we took it seriously, too.
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen through the years?
A: When I started, you hopped into your boots. They were rubber boots that came to probably mid-thigh. A lot of old-timers folded the top part down until getting to the scene. The old coats were really heavy. The new ones are lighter and heat- and flame-resistant. We have air packs now. We used to have charcoal canisters that filtered the air we were breathing. It didn’t do a lot for carbon monoxide.
The industry has changed by leaps and bounds. The equipment is much better now than it was in my early days of firefighting.
Q: What is your favorite kind of firetruck?
A: The Peter Pirsch truck. They were pumpers and could draft water, like out of a pond or a hydrant. You have to have a lot of water. It will suck things dry. Trucks today can do the same thing.
We used them for years. You get a feel for them, how they ride or shift if you’re the driver. It’s also about the style and the look. They made a sound that was like the noise semitrucks make as they’re going down the road.
Q: What made you decide to retire?
A: Eventually, you realize it’s a young man’s job. You can’t do it forever. But, you hear sirens starting to wail and you see a truck heading north on University Avenue and you think, “what’s going on up there?” I stand at the end of my driveway to see which truck it is. I’ll think about where it’s going. If I see one with a big engine, I might say to myself, “that’s a rescue.” It gets into your system. It takes awhile to wash it out.
It’s been a great ride. I like helping people in trouble. That was my whole goal.
The training from firefighting is something I take with me. I hand it down to my kids and grandchildren and neighbors. Also, the camaraderie, the friendships, that’s forever. We go out of our way for each other. If people need help, all they have to do is call.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.