The story that’s been told for more than a decade is that the mayor was lost and Jeff Davis found him.
About 15 years ago, Inver Grove Heights firefighter George Tourville, who is now the city’s mayor, fell into a mechanics’ pit while fighting a fire at a truck garage. Fellow firefighter Davis was the first to find him.
“I fell quite a ways and couldn’t breathe because I had broken ribs, and I couldn’t get myself up on all fours because I had a broken wrist and a broken thumb,” Tourville said. “We couldn’t see anything inside when we got there. It was totally black.”
Davis says he heard moaning and followed the sound. “All of a sudden, I heard someone very faint: ‘Help, help,’ ” Davis said. “I found him out of sheer luck.”
But luck is not what his colleagues say makes Davis, 59, a rare volunteer firefighter. It’s passion, dedication, love of his community and an ability to relate to people of all ages and teach them everything he knows about fire safety and prevention.
The lifelong Inver Grove Heights resident last week celebrated 40 years of service to the fire department. And he doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.
“I’d call him extraordinarily dedicated,” said Inver Grove Heights Fire Chief Judy Thill. “And that’s not just because he’s lasted 40 years, but because he’s performed at such a high level for 40 years.”
He has one of the highest attendance records in the history of the department, and is the longest-serving firefighter in the city. In the last 16 years, Davis has responded to more than 6,300 calls, averaging about 400 per year. Thill says it’s safe to say that over the past 40 years, he’s responded to well over 10,000 calls. And for the past eight years, he’s made 100 percent of his weekly drills, even with his full-time job.
“I just do the best I can,” Davis said. “I’m kind of slowing down a bit,” he said, joking about his age, “but I try to make all the calls I can. That’s a lot of calls. It just makes me proud that I can still get up and do it.”
Davis joined the fire department in 1973, shortly after graduating high school. The city had just built the station and was looking for volunteers.
“It was a heck of a lot different,” he said. “We rode on the back of the fire trucks, and back then, we just had real long rubber coats and big rubber boots that came up close to your hips. They weren’t very good for fire fighting [in Minnesota]. Just not warm enough on the back of the fire truck when it’s 30, 40 below. But it was fun.”
‘I’m a kid myself’
What kept him going all these years? “I just like doing it,” Davis said.
He especially likes working with kids, teaching them fire prevention. Davis’ face lights up when he talks about it.
“I’m a kid myself,” he said. “I’m not married, I don’t have kids, but I enjoy working with kids. If we have our open house, I get right in the bouncy house with the kids. At National Night Out a few years ago, people had a sprinkler out and I ran right through it with the kids. I just like kids.”
Assistant Fire Chief Eric Bergum calls Davis a “fire prevention enthusiast.”
“I can’t even imagine how many fires Jeff has stopped before they even happen,” Bergum said.
‘Just knew how to fight fires’
Davis has served at the department for so long that special state legislation had to be created to allow him to continue earning his pension past a cap on years served.
“He’s made history in the state,” Thill said. Although other firefighters have stayed on departments for decades — Pete Lundell, for example, has served in Rosemount for 44 years — it’s becoming more rare.
“It’s probably something you’ll never see in the future,” Thill said. “There are a lot of wonderful firefighters out there that have the 40 or 50 years, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from them. But where Jeff is really rare is just the number of calls and the number of trainings in the last 40 years that he’s been to.”
From risking his life and climbing into a second-story window before a hose was ready for his protection, to performing CPR on a swimmer for more than 45 minutes and saving his life, Davis has seen it all.
“Jeff Davis is the type of guy that just knew how to fight fires,” Bergum said.
At a celebration last week for Davis, Tourville proclaimed July 14, 2013 as “Jeff Davis Day.”
Davis says his other passion is running marathons. This year, he completed his 33rd Grandma’s Marathon. But the 40 years at the fire department so far is his most important marathon, he said. And he wants to keep running for as long as possible.
“I’ve been heehawing about [retiring], but it never happens. It’s going to be hard for me to leave,” Davis said. “The firefighters are like family. They kid around a lot with me. I’m not as fast as I used to be. They’ll say, ‘Come on, old man, get going!’” he said with a laugh. “I still outdo some of the guys. So it doesn’t bother me.”
Although he is humble and doesn’t think he’s doing anything extraordinary, Thill said, his colleagues definitely see it.
“The fact that for 40 years, he’s been dropping everything he has, on his spare time, to help out the citizens of Inver Grove Heights is just an unbelievable accomplishment,” Bergum said. “It’s just unbelievable.”