As a father and son, Mike and Joe Halaska resemble each other in more ways than one. Still, Mike, a career firefighter, never expected that his son, who studied kinesiology in college, would also join the fire service, much less work in the same department.
In late 2012, Joe landed a job with the Richfield Fire Department, where Mike had logged 26 years. They labored alongside one another, though not on the same crews, up until Mike retired on March 29.
Firefighting tends to “get in the blood,” and larger fire departments often see multiple family members in the ranks, but it’s the only time it’s happened in the Richfield Fire Department’s 76-year history.
Richfield fire chief Wayne Kewitsch said it has to do with the fact that the business is highly competitive, especially in this state.
The Richfield Fire Department has 24 firefighters, plus a chief and an assistant chief. Anytime the department has an opening, as many as 150 applications pour in. So it’s unique that Joe “got here on his own right,” Kewitsch said.
The senior Halaska “has always been a great firefighter, steady and solid. We see the same traits in his son,” Kewitsch said.
Besides that, both men are “good-natured and they share a love of life. They get along well with everyone at the department,” Kewitsch said.
Mike Halaska, 57, started his career in Brainerd at the prompting of a friend, Denny Bollig, who long served the city’s fire department.
Part of the draw for him was just the desire to help people. Mike also enjoyed the teamwork aspect and the department’s familial atmosphere. Everyone works 24-hour shifts, so they get to know each other, and their families, too, he said.
Every day brings new challenges pertaining to fires or medical emergencies, so there was never a dull moment. In the fire service, “it’s a different scenario everyday,” Mike said. “You know as soon as the tones go off, you’re going to be a problem-solver for someone, whether it’s a house fire or a car accident or a medical issue.”
Often, someone who had been “dead on the floor,” who was revived, will return to the station later to thank the firefighters for saving their lives. “It’s quite a reward right there,” Mike said.
It’s a job that has meaning, he said. As a younger person, Mike was drawn to the excitement of a fire, but “not so much anymore,” he said.
Mike has seen death and other hard things. It takes a toll on one’s body and mind, he said. It’s “a young man’s sport,” he said. “I say, let the younger firefighters come in and do their job. It’s a passing of the torch, as they say.”
Now that his son is in the business, he realizes what his wife, Leanne, went through all of those years. “Now I worry about Joe,” he said.
However, Mike is proud of him, too, and it’s heartening to see him do well. Already, Joe has been recognized for his efforts with two life-saving awards.
“He’s become a strong firefighter who is well-respected. It’s a good fit for him,” Mike said. “He needs to evolve on his own, too. It’s not just ‘your Mike’s son.’ Now he’ll be ‘Joe Halaska.’ ”
Looking up to Dad
As a child, Joe, 30, frequently visited the fire station with his mom. He loved to explore the place, check out the fire trucks and hang out with the crew. He loved the camaraderie. “It was always a good time,” he said.
Today, he’s working with some of the same firefighters he mingled with back then. “You respect guys you saw 20-some years ago still working here,” Joe said.
Although firefighting wasn’t always his plan, it was always in the back of his mind. It helped that his dad’s enthusiasm never waned. “Seeing the joy he had for the job — he never seemed like he didn’t want to go into work,” it made it appealing, Joe said.
He was drawn to it for many of the same reasons as his dad. “I like coming to work every day, being able to directly impact citizens,” Joe said.
After his stints with the Stillwater and Duluth fire departments, Joe landed in Richfield. Having spent so much time growing up at the Richfield station, seeing his dad in action, “I thought it was the fire department,” Joe said. “It’s a bit surreal.”
Sharing a workplace, coworkers and a passion with his dad, with whom he often goes hunting and fishing, has brought them closer together. “We’re better friends now than ever,” he said.
Making workplace brighter
Dave Quebodeaux, a captain with the department, said it’s been fun to have both generations of Halaskas in the station. “You see Mike give Joe a hard time and vice versa. We all sit back and laugh.”
Both have the same mannerisms — “the way they walk, a lot of times you have to do a double take…. they’re cut from the same cloth. They have the same sense of humor and work ethic,” Quebodeaux said.
“It’s an anamoly. It probably won’t happen again,” having a father-son team, in this department, he said.
Mike was a mentor to Quebodeaux when he started. “You develop bonds. He’s a brother. To know that he now isn’t in the same capacity, it makes you happy for him but it makes you sad, too,” he said.
When Joe started with the department, he had a leg up. Mike let him know “what was expected of him. He said, ‘this is where you are in the hierarchy.’ Joe fell into it without taking a second breath. He understood what the job was, the knowledge he had to gain.”
At the station, Quebodeaux sees Mike “look at Joe. He smiles and shakes his head. You can see he’s thinking — ‘That’s my boy.’ ”
Chris Faint, who lives in Minneapolis, started at the Richfield Fire Department at the same time as Joe. He appreciates the “intangible things” that the Halaskas bring to the job. Their upbeat personalities make a big difference. “You look forward to working with them. On bad days, they’ll be there to joke around about it, when someone is down,” Faint said.
Likewise, they take pains to include everyone in whatever is happening. One year, Joe invited him to spend the holidays with his family, since Faint isn’t from the area. “They don’t hesitate to reach to others,” he said.
Leanne Halaska said her husband and son’s line of work is a “mixed-blessings kind of thing.”
She’s very proud that both are “so caring for others.”
“It makes your heart feel good,” especially raising a son, “seeing him in a role like that,” Leanne said.
It’s a difficult career path, though. As a wife and mother, “you worry,” she said. After all, “it’s not just a job. It’s a lifestyle. Our lives on based around tone-activated events.”
“You think you’re at a movie together, but you might get left there,” Leanne said, adding, “Our kids got used to the fact that schedules could always change.”
Mike was often away on holidays and other special events. She’s looking forward to celebrating those occasions with him at home now. “I’m really happy to have Mike ending his career happy and healthy,” she said, adding, “I think I’ll have the bigger adjustment.”
As for Mike, he doesn’t have any immediate plans for retirement, just to take a break for a while.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.