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RANDY'S RAMBLINGS: Hudson firefighters deserve the community's gratitude

On New Year's Eve morning, Jim Frye and his wife, Lori, were planning to get out of town early to pay their son Daniel a visit in Rice Lake.

Instead, the chief of the Hudson Fire Department spent the next few hours directing the response to a fire in a townhouse building on Hunter Hill Road south of the high school.

I know this because when I got home from work and told my wife about the fire, she reported that the chief had been into bank where she works that morning and was on his way out of town.

"Yeah. I got delayed that day a little bit," the low-key chief said when I talked to him about the fire a couple of days later.

He was more concerned about the people who were displaced by the fire, including Jodi Colbeth, daughter of the late Donny Colbeth, a member of the Hudson Fire Department for 37 years.

"It's always unfortunate, but the time of year doesn't make it any easier," Frye said of Colbeth and the others losing their homes and possessions to the fire.

That's just one instance of Frye and the rest of the Hudson volunteer firefighters putting their lives on hold while they rushed to assist other community members.

The calls frequently come at inopportune times -- during dinner on a Friday evening after busy week of work, a Sunday afternoon when the Packers are on TV, at night in the middle of a blizzard, during a thunderstorm... .

The department responded to a record 423 calls in 2012, an average of more than one a day. The 40 volunteers were called out to structure fires, traffic accidents, alarms, downed power lines, to assist neighboring departments and more.

And that's just the unplanned duty.

Technical college training is required to become a firefighter and advance to the second level of certification. Courses are also required to drive and operate a fire engine and an aerial ladder, to be a fire officer, to be a fire instructor and to respond to hazardous material incidents.

In addition, the Hudson department has required drills the second and fourth Monday evenings of the month, and elective refresher classes the third Monday.

Most of Hudson's firefighters are now trained medical first responders, too, able to provide basic first aid or do CPR in an emergency.

"We've just improved so much with the different aspects of the fire department," Tom Zeuli, the city's public works director and a firefighter for 34 years, told me. "Now we're involved with rescue. Most of our people are first responders. Most of us are trained in ice-water rescue. Some people are trained in swift-water rescue and high vertical rope rescue."

"It's a big undertaking for a volunteer," Zeuli said. "It really is with all the training that is required."

Beyond the training, there are the engines and apparatus to keep clean and in good repair.

Chief Frye, in particular, puts in what Miranda Kustrich, the department's part-time administrative assistant, terms "insane hours."

After finishing his eight-hour shift as the city water utility's chief operator, Frye gets a bite to eat and heads to the fire station.

"He's here every single night, and weekends," Kustrich said. "He's here most nights from 6 to 9 or 10... He's here on weekends, I would say, six to eight hours."

"There's just a lot more administrative stuff that goes on today than 12 years ago when I started as chief," Frye explained to me.

For Frye, like a number of his fellow firefighters, serving on the department has become a family tradition. His father, Eldon Frye, was a member of the department for 42 years. His uncle, Herb Frye, was fire chief for 10 or 11 years.

"I was drawn to the red lights and sirens at a young, impressionable age," Chief Frye said with a laugh. He recalled riding with his dad to the station when calls came in, and then waiting for the engines to return after the fire.

"I believe in the mission, I guess is the biggest thing that keeps me there, as well as the rest of the group that is there," said Chief Frye.

At a City Council meeting a month or so ago, the chief was questioned about a couple of minor management decisions.

One council member thought he should have gotten permission before moving his desk into the old EMS lounge. The alderperson suggested that Frye should have his office in the lower level of City Hall.

Another alderperson wanted to sell the department's 1992 Chevy Suburban, which was recently repaired for $3,000, and replace it with a smaller vehicle.

The chief wasn't keen on either idea. He'd like his office in the station, close to the firefighters and engines. He believes the roomy old Suburban has another couple of years of life in it.

I've looked at the Wisconsin Taxpayer's Alliance comparisons of municipal per capita spending on fire protection and emergency medical service. I say, let's let the chief manage the fire department.

Hudson is consistently near the bottom of cities its size when it comes to fire and EMS spending. That's because it has a volunteer department, for the most part.

The officers are paid modest stipends and the fully certified firefighters get $23.50 per run.

Frye is the highest paid officer with an annual salary of $8,778. The assistant chiefs -- Jeff Dabruzzi and Bill Wanner -- get $4,096 a year.

The two captains -- Jim Perucca and Mike Spencer -- earn annual salaries of $2,574; the three lieutenants -- Jay Penfield, Aaron Zeuli and Tom Barthman -- $1,755 a year. The secretary and treasurer are each paid $1,197 a year.

The department also has a full-time fire inspector, Dave Krupich, and the 24-hours-a-week administrative assistant position filled by Kustrich.

Our volunteer firefighters deserve our appreciation for the time they put in, the service they provide, and for protecting our pocketbooks.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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