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Last Fire Call: Fire chief retiring after 36-year career

As a child, Kevin Schroeder used to tag along with his dad as he headed to the Scanlon fire hall to work as a volunteer firefighter.

Schroeder became a firefighter himself, first as a volunteer in Scanlon when he was 17 years old, then in Cloquet, where he rose through the ranks to captain, battalion chief and finally to fire chief of the state's first fire district.

Next week will be Schroeder's last one as chief of the Cloquet Area Fire District - an entity he helped shepherd since he was promoted in 2011 - because he is retiring effective June 26.

He will be missed, said Gordy Meagher, who rose through the ranks with Schroeder over the years. They were captains together, then battalion chiefs. Then fire district chief Jim Langenbrunner announced his retirement.

"I looked at Kevin - he'd always planned and trained to become chief - and I told him 'I will be your campaign manager,'" Meagher said. "I'd like to think I helped him get the job."

Langenbrunner, now chairman of the CAFD Board of Directors, had high praise for the outgoing chief.

"Kevin was one of those rare individuals who truly loved his job," said Langenbrunner, who supervised Schroeder during his own years at the helm. "It was and is a passion for him. He constantly was seeking ways to expand his knowledge in the fire, emergency medical fields, technical rescue and by establishing professional networks. Due to this he excelled.

"He (also) risked his life many times to help others," Langenbrunner said, adding that Schroeder was often unrecognized "by all but his brothers and sisters doing the job."

That quiet and humble efficiency made Schroeder an excellent choice to lead a growing fire district the past 10 years, firefighters said. He empowered CAFD employees to help make the district an example for the entire state to follow. He grew to be an expert at his job, and an excellent communicator. He was also a formidable grant writer, garnering funds and recognition that have made the district well equipped and renowned.

Replacing him won't be easy, board members acknowledged this spring as they were searching and evaluating candidates. They realized they needed a CEO even more than a fire chief, someone capable of overseeing and leading an organization that provides protection across 170 square miles and ambulance service to an area of more than 250 square-miles in Carlton County and southern St. Louis County.

Schroeder said the district has staff positions below him that largely deal with the day-to-day operations of the actual service delivery and his role has morphed to more closely resemble a city administrator who's also a firefighter.

"I'm dealing with the budgets and requirements and rules and regulations and community relations with all of our members in more of an administrative role, whether that's establishing the levies and budgets or policy," he said. He still responds to major incidents, and he's still a fully qualified and trained Incident Command member.

"Prior to the (creation of the fire district) the fire chief was much more active on the street and in the actual delivery end of the business," he said.

At one meeting this spring, board member Bob DeCaigny mused that - according to the job description and goals - it appeared what they were looking for was actually "Superman."

Meagher and fellow battalion chief Jesse Buhs both say Schroeder has done an excellent job.

Like Langenbrunner, Buhs talked about Schroeder's passion for the job and his ability to lead.

"His capacity for technical knowledge and his understanding of current fire, rescue and EMS practices allowed him to excel in his role as chief," Buhs said. He "leaves some large shoes to fill."

He excelled at the administrative duties of chief, Meagher said, and was a great advocate for the district at the state legislature.

What he will miss most aren't Schroeder's leadership skills. It is the Friday afternoon chats they've had for years, conversations about life, fishing, gardening, family.

"Just talking about stuff," Meagher said. "Not fire or EMS, because we deal with that so much. After 25 years together, that's what I will miss the most."

Growing pains

When Schroeder started working with the Cloquet Fire Department, he recalled, there were 12 full-time firefighters there, plus the fire chief. Now, the CAFD counts 64 full- and part-time employees. Over the same timeframe, annual calls for fire and ambulance services went from about 1,000 calls a year to more than 3,000. In the mid-1990s, the fire department also upped its level of service, moving from basic life support ambulance to advanced life support, which brought paramedical services here.

That was in response to public demand for a higher level of service, he said, as people saw what was available in larger cities and on television. The population here was aging and that also increased demands for service, he said.

"That, and at some point, I don't know when and where, people began calling 911 for everything," he said. "So instead of just either taking care of it yourself or driving to your primary care physician, everything became an emergency room visit. Those shifts have taken place nationwide. We're not unique in that manner, society is just changing as it goes."

Changing from a city department to a fire district was the right thing to do to meet those changing needs, he said. Talk about it began in the early 2000s, he said, after federal and state governments changed how ambulance services were reimbursed.

"The city had, for several years, just supplemented the cost of the service through taxes," he said. "Through the fire district, we spread that cost to the entire area that receives the service, so it equalized the cost of service to everyone and created financial stability for our organization."

At the same time, the fire district model - which employs both full-time and part-time "paid on call" firefighters and EMTs - has helped with staffing issues when other departments were struggling to find enough people.

"It's been 10 years since the district formed and I still think it was the best decision ever made," Schroeder said.

Now the Cloquet Area Fire District covers member communities Cloquet, Scanlon, Perch Lake and Brevator and also provides structural fire protection under contract with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Schroeder leaves the district in excellent shape. It faces the challenge of finding staff like other departments in the region. And there are facility needs. And while the fire district fully took over the space it formerly shared with the Cloquet Police Department at Station 1 on Cloquet Avenue, the change was not a panacea.

"Our service in the streets is second to none in the region," Schroeder said. "If we are going to improve that and continue to increase our efficiency and cost effectiveness, we need to consolidate building facilities and look at addressing the condition of some of our current ones. That'll be huge. Otherwise, the ongoing (issue) is always staffing at both the fulltime and the volunteer level."

Full circle

Schroeder grew up across the street from the Scanlon Community Center, where the district trains firefighters today. "So when I chased my dad to the fire hall, we ran across the yard," Schroeder said, sitting at a table in the community center last week. "I always found it ironic when I was promoted to fire chief and the district offices were located here in Scanlon. I told my dad: After all these years, I made it all the way across the street." He chuckles. "I made it real far in life."

That's just fine with Schroeder, who says he still loves the job and the people. But it's time for him to spend quality time with his wife, Mary, and other loved ones, and let someone else lead the fire district in its next phase of existence. There will be a small party for Schroeder before he goes, but, due to the pandemic, it won't be public.

"I spent my entire life leaving my wife standing in the driveway - every flood and every storm and everything - so that I can go to work and help somebody else out. I told her one day, I said, it's time that we were first. I'm in a business - by choice and a business that I love - but it's dictated by other people's needs. And we just hit that point after a few family health issues where it's like, you know, we're capable, it's time to look at us first. I can always make more money, I can't make more time."

It was also a good time for a change in leadership, he said.

"I've accomplished what I set out to do," he said. "We kept the district together and we have matured into a functional and efficient organization. Organizationally, it's time to have somebody come in and see where they can now take that."

Schroeder is walking out the door still loving what he does, He'll miss it, but it's time.

"It's been an honor and a privilege to serve my hometown," he said. "And I hope I've never let them down doing that."

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