Among long-serving firefighters, Mike Kruse has few peers.

He joined the Northfield Fire Department at 21 and moved into the year-old station the next day on May 17, 1973.

Nearly 40 years and 8,500 calls later, Kruse, a touch of gray at his temples, is still sliding down the 18-foot-tall fire pole when his pager goes off at night. He dons his yellow helmet and turnout gear and maps the route while firefighters arrive. Then, lights flashing and sirens wailing, he drives the first pumper truck out the big doors into the night.

"It's pretty much an adrenaline rush," said Kruse, whose father was a Northfield firefighter for 23 years. "I've delivered babies and I also have had them die in my arms. ... I like helping people. It is still rewarding when people come up and thank you."

While three Minneapolis firefighters will hit 40 years of service this year, none lives full-time at fire stations like Kruse does, said Cherie Penn, a Minneapolis assistant fire chief. She commended such longevity, which "speaks to their love of, and commitment to, the job and public service."

Shane Schmidt is president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association, a trade group for full- and part-time firefighters. He was amazed to hear of a firefighter living so long in a fire station.

"Wow. That's kind of a rarity," he said. "It is very, very unheard of these days."

Schmidt, a former firefighter in Alexandria, Minn., said many firefighters, volunteer or full-time, retire after 20 years when they are fully vested for their pension. He said big city, full-time firefighters live and sleep in fire stations for several days straight and then are relieved by others. "That this guy is still sleeping there is amazing," Schmidt said.

Kruse, who retired from his day job as an electrician in 2009, is the only "sleeper" left at Northfield's downtown fire station on the Cannon River. The 28-member department once had six paid, on-call firefighters living in three upstairs rooms, said Fire Chief Gerry Franek.

Kruse "is one of the anchors of our department," Franek said. "He is instrumental in helping our response time. ... He saves us minutes, that's for sure, and every minute is precious when you are talking about a fire scene or a medical situation. It makes all the difference in the world."

In return for free rent, Kruse must be in the station 60 hours a week and spend 10 hours cleaning station floors, trucks and equipment or doing other duties. He also gives station tours to school students and drives fire trucks to collect items for food drives. He earns about $5,000 a year for fire and medical calls, more than most firefighters because he responds to about three-quarters of the calls, he said.

Kruse's career-long friend, Jeff Machacek, became a sleeper on the same day as Kruse, but moved out a dozen years later when he acquired a bride. He and Kruse plan to keep heckling each other for another year or so while helping train six or more recruits being picked this year to fill vacant positions.

Sleepers "are the first in on everything," said Machacek, 61, now first assistant fire chief. "You are first to know when something goes wrong."

Last week Kruse drove the pumper to a night fire on the fourth floor at the local Malt 'O Meal plant. He said he showed young firefighters how to charge and hook pumper hoses to a standpipe, part of a building's internal water system.

Firefighting can be hazardous duty.

"You have things blowing up -- grass fires that overrun township roads," Machacek said. "Mike and I never thought we'd meet our maker, but once we were on a call when a farm garage gas tank exploded and shot past the truck. I think Mike got burned on that one."

Kruse recalled the above-ground gasoline tank explosion that left him with a blistered right hand and neck.

"I was pulling the hose and I heard this hissing sound. I looked and saw flames coming out the top [of the tank]. I ducked and the flames went right over me. It was like a missile."

"It's a lot of luck and a lot of stuff you learn to watch out for," Kruse said. "You learn somewhat to stay out of trouble."

Kruse is a top-notch pumper-truck engineer and operator, Franek said. That means he positions the pumper upwind at the fire scene, away from power lines and out of building collapse range. The pumper must have clear access for other trucks to reload it with water to keep fire hoses pressurized. Kruse adjusts hose pressure as needed and can produce water foam to suppress certain types of fires, Franek said.

Kruse is also a trained emergency medical technician (EMT) and "very good on medicals," Machacek said. One of his favorite pastimes, besides hunting moose and elk, is working as an EMT at Twins and Vikings games, Kruse said. His second-floor room displays collections of firefighter belt buckles, toy-size fire trucks and ball caps. His room also is equipped with a TV, desktop computer, printer and a fire dispatch beeper.

Kruse has a cabin up north where he eventually plans to retire.

Why has he stuck it out so long?

"I always felt like helping people, and this was the best way I could see of doing that," Kruse said. He concedes that fatal accidents and big fires are stressful, but "I enjoy the people we meet on the calls. ... I will miss this stuff after 40 years of being on the first truck out."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283