Rich Hjelmgren keeps the fire engines runningChief Engineer Rich Hjelmgren was honored as 2012 Firefighter of the Year at the Hudson Fire Department’s annual banquet in late January.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Chief Engineer Rich Hjelmgren was honored as 2012 Firefighter of the Year at the Hudson Fire Department’s annual banquet in late January.
“Our deepest appreciation for your dedicated volunteer service ensuring the maintenance, performance, safety and reliability of our apparatus and equipment,” reads the plaque that the 22-year veteran of the volunteer department was given.
Hjelmgren’s job with the department is the care of its three pumper engines, a 95-foot ladder truck, two water tenders, two brush trucks, a Suburban, a pickup truck, a hazardous materials trailer, a rescue boat and countless motorized tools — from chainsaws to ventilation fans.
“Rich, for years, has headed the maintenance of our apparatus and equipment. And he’s done a tremendous job,” said Fire Chief Jim Frye, who presented Hjelmgren with the award at the dinner at the Hudson Rod and Gun Club.
Hjelmgren was nominated and selected for the award by the department’s 40 volunteer members.
“To get honored as Firefighter of the Year is pretty special. It really warms a guy’s heart, I tell you,” he said in an interview at the fire hall last week. “These guys are my brothers and it’s pretty neat.”
While Hjelmgren no longer completes the routine oil changes and other maintenance on the fire engines, he schedules the work and any repairs that are needed.
He and fellow firefighters Randy St. Ores, Frank Halvorson and Don Heldt handle some of the minor repairs.
“Everything kind of runs through me when we have a problem with a truck,” Hjelmgren said. “The operators will contact me, let me know what the problem is. Either I’ll fix it or have a couple of guys down here that work with me do it. If it is something that is beyond us, I’ll find a vendor to do it.”
They’ve saved Hudson taxpayers a lot of money over the years by completing repairs in-house, he added.
Hjelmgren also trains the engine operators (drivers) and serves on the committee that writes up the specifications for new engines and equipment that are purchased.
“I think my input is pretty valued here,” he said.
It’s knowledge that the 61-year-old Hjelmgren gained in 40 years of working as an automobile and truck mechanic.
“I started wrenching when I was 16,” he said.
After graduating from St. Paul Central High School, Hjelmgren earned a degree in auto mechanics from Dunwoody Institute and went to work for a Twin Cities Chevrolet dealership.
He worked for Wilkins Dodge in St. Paul for a number of years before being hired by Northwest Airlines in 1981 as a ground-support mechanic. Eventually rising to crew chief, he maintained and repaired de-icing trucks and other ground vehicles at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and smaller airports throughout the region.
His job with Northwest ended in 2005 when the airline fired its mechanics and outsourced the work.
For the past nearly five years, Hjelmgren has been a driver and maintenance worker for the Minnesota Department of Transportation at its Hastings shop.
“I plow snow on Hwy. 52 going down to Cannon Falls,” he said with a grin.
Hjelmgren and his wife, Susan, built a house on McCutcheon Road in the town of Hudson and moved here 1979.
Dean Rossing was chief of the fire department when Hjelmgren joined it in 1989.
He recalls being underneath a fire engine with the late George Reed, putting in a new starter, when one of the first fire calls that he responded to came in.
After getting the starter in the engine, he was surprised to have Reed tell him to get behind the steering wheel.
“And I was scared to death,” he said.
Now firefighters can’t even begin training to drive a fire engine until they’ve been a member of the department for five years.
Hjelmgren isn’t sure that people in the community understand the amount of time that firefighters dedicate to the department.
Besides the middle-of-the-night and weekend fire calls, there are regular Monday night and specialty training sessions to attend.
“It takes a lot of time. And when a guy’s raising a family, it’s not easy to do,” he said. “You do make some sacrifices. But in the end, it is rewarding.”
“This department is very well run and the community can be very proud of it,” Hjelmgren added. “It’s a great bunch of guys.”
He credited his wife for being tolerant of his service to the department over the years.
He and Susan have two sons, Dale and Kevin, and two granddaughters. Kevin is a New Richmond firefighter.