The scene of a serious head-on crash on Hwy. 42 involving a pickup truck and a sport-utility vehicle in Rosemount seven years ago sticks out in Richard Schroeder’s mind.
Schroeder and his fellow Rosemount firefighters were first at the scene, pulling up as close as possible to the victim, who made it to the operating table in 58 minutes — two minutes shy of the “golden hour” deadline.
“If you don’t have somebody to a hospital room within that hour, their chances of survival drop drastically,” said Schroeder, Rosemount’s new fire chief.
A month later, the Rosemount Fire Department got a letter from the victim’s father, saying the doctor told him that “had it been a minute or two more, your son would not be here today,” Schroeder recalled.
“Time is obviously our biggest enemy in every scene that we do,” Schroeder said. “Anytime you can tip that in your favor, it’s going to have somewhat of a good outcome for you.”
That’s one reason why Schroeder, a self-described “stickler for training,” wants to implement more training opportunities for the department in his new leadership role. Schroeder became fire chief April 2, after 15 years of service as a firefighter, most recently as captain.
Following a childhood dream of becoming both a firefighter and a cop, Schroeder is also a sergeant of investigations at the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, his full-time job. He started as an intern for the sheriff’s office and was hired on in 2004. His past roles at the sheriff’s office include recreational safety, court security, transport division, patrol division and school resource officer. He’s also halfway done with his master’s degree in criminal justice and public administration.
Schroeder grew up in South St. Paul and worked in radio and television. He later owned a lawn-care company before his career in police and fire.
“For law enforcement, I literally did a ride-along on a Tuesday night with a friend of mine and the following Monday I was enrolled in school for law enforcement,” Schroeder said. “I knew that’s how I wanted to finish my career, never thinking that I’d be sitting in this chair here at the time [as fire chief]. But weird things happen, and sometimes the stars just align.”
What attracted him to police and fire? “I think it’s the adrenaline rush of it all — those quickly unfolding scenes, and having to make strong tactical decisions in a quick and timely manner,” Schroeder said. “I think that challenge is what really draws me in.”
‘It’s saving lives’
Schroeder replaces outgoing Rosemount Fire Chief Scott Aker, who served at the department for 31 years.
The department, made up of about 40 people, has always struggled with filling daytime slots for on-call firefighters. “We have no full-time staff members that are part of the fire department, and we’re one of the few remaining departments in our area that can say that,” said Rosemount City Administrator Dwight Johnson.
The department takes about 700 calls each year. Instead of being in contact with the community only in emergencies, Schroeder hopes to educate residents in the same way a police citizens academy does.
“Community safety is obviously our Number 1 priority,” Schroeder said. “If we’re not putting the tools out there to keep the people in our community safe, we’re not doing our jobs.”
Schroeder offers that perspective as both a fire chief and a cop. “We can imagine that maybe in the future, the fire department and the police department will probably have to work even more closely together,” Johnson said.
Consider, for instance, a new strategy used by firefighters and EMS in responding to victims at mass casualty scenes.
They used to have to wait until police secured the scene before going in. “Now, we’re not waiting anymore,” Schroeder said. “We’re getting in and getting people treatment instead of letting people lay there. And it’s saving lives.”
Schroeder has the ability to separate his emotions from the difficult sights in order to get the job done, he said. “Between here and the sheriff’s office, I’ve seen just about everything a person can see in a career,” he said.
Closer together than ever
Technology also is playing a bigger role in firefighter training.
About a year ago, Schroeder pushed to get computers in the firetrucks, which he thinks will prove their worth down the line. Fire departments now videotape their work for training firefighters to watch.
Another emerging challenge is responding to crashes involving electric hybrid cars, with high voltage presenting a risk in cutting people out of the car.
“There’s things like that that are constantly changing, and you have to move with it,” Schroeder said.
But technology is not the only thing changing the face of the job.
The Sept. 11 attacks and the Boston bombings have changed how the work feels.
“I think it drew every firefighter and cop in this country closer together in everything that we do,” he said.
When Schroeder looks at his career, he feels fortunate to have been able to pursue both firefighting and law enforcement.
“When I walk away from here I’ll have had a very successful and happy career,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”