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Fire chief officially starts Monday

It took close to a year to find him, but the Cloquet Area Fire District has hired a new chief.

Matthew Ashmore will start his new job full-time on Monday, Nov. 30. He comes to Cloquet from the Hibbing Fire Department, where he worked as a battalion chief and as emergency medical services (EMS) director.

It was a long search process - actually two searches - but CAFD board member and succession planning committee chair, Linda Wey, said it was worth the extra time and effort.

She explained that the committee started the second search by defining what they wanted for the leader of the district, and concluded they wanted a fire chief, rather than a purely administrative position. The board supported that.

"It was a good process and a good experience, working together and communicating with the board," Wey told the Pine Knot on Tuesday. "Our goal was to find the most qualified person we could and let them grow into the position.

"I think we have an outstanding new fire chief," she added.

For his part, Ashmore said he was drawn to both the position and the unique nature of the Cloquet Fire District, which provides fire protection to 170 square miles and ambulance service to a state-mandated area of more than 250 square miles in Carlton County and southern St. Louis County.

"After making it deeper into the process and the more I looked at the job, it became apparent to me that this was a unique position that had many possibilities," he said. "Unlike city-run departments, the district offers less red tape in order to run a department. It also requires more administrative duties that normal city fire chiefs don't have."

Ashmore will fill the spot left by longtime chief Kevin Schroeder and interim chief Roger Waters, who both retired from the fire district this year (Schroeder in June and Waters on Nov. 6).

The Pine Knot News conducted a virtual interview with Ashmore over the weekend, so we and our readers could get to know our new fire chief.

QYou've been in firefighting 25 years; how and why did you get started in firefighting?

AI started my career in 1995 at the Eveleth Fire Department. The same department my father had a brief job before moving on to other things, and my grandfather retired as full-time Assistant Chief in the 1980s. I remember going there as a kid many times, but never gave it much thought as a career until a friend of mine suggested joining. Since there were four positions and four applicants, I got on. It didn't take me long to figure out that I really enjoyed the work, but would need lots of additional training to do it full-time. So, I went through many firefighting classes, EMT and paramedic to better my chances, and it paid off.

QWhat keeps you going in a job that sometimes leads to burnout?

ABurnout symptoms come and go throughout any career. You just have to work through those down times to find a new path. Family, friends, and co-workers are the best to help with this, as many times they are all not down when you are, and can help lift your passion back up.

QHow is the Hibbing fire department different/similar to the CAFD?

AThe two departments are very similar, including size, structure, services provided and geographical coverage area. Some of the differences are that the CAFD's proximity to larger hospitals is much less, and some of the operating procedures and equipment are different.

QCan you tell us more about your business, the MN Public Safety Group? Will you continue as COO?

AI co-own a company with Erik Jankila, the Hibbing Fire Department Chief, that provides fire, EMS, and safety training to area departments and hospitals, and consulting in the same fields. We have been in official business for about three years, but have been instructing with each other for many more years than that. We are evaluating our next move with this change to my career, and I will be stepping back from doing as much as normal. This will give me the time needed to give my full attention to the district before deciding on how to move forward with the business.

QWhat are the biggest challenges facing combined fire and ambulance departments like ours?

AThe CAFD - much like many departments in the country - staffing and budget are a couple of the biggest challenges. It doesn't matter if it's full-time or paid on-call, recruitment of good candidates is always an issue, and maintaining a responsible budget that keeps taxes down is always a priority.

QWhat do you think about the concept of a fire district and how it's working here in Carlton County?

AFire districts or any pairing and sharing services is a good concept. It's getting past our individualities to allow ourselves to share services that is the difficult task. In many places around the country, fire districts are normal and becoming more common as staffing and budgets become more of an issue. From what I currently know, it seems to be working well here in Carlton County.

QDo you think CAFD needs to build a new facility? Why or why not?

AIt is difficult to make a decision on whether or not they are needed because facilities are such large expenses. Many fire stations were built 30 or more years ago when departments had lower call volumes, vehicles, and services provided. Much like when your family grows, many times so does the house that you live in. This is no different in the emergency services family. Evaluating what is needed for our growing family becomes the job of everyone to make the right decision. I do believe the district is in need of new facilities, and maybe even a regional training center. As there are no state-funded structural firefighting facilities in the northern part of the state, figuring out what exactly needs to be done and how to pay for it is a top-tier priority for the district.

QCan you tell us anything about you personally?

AI have been married to my wife, Kristina, for 23 years. She works for the Hibbing school district as a pupil support assistant. We have two daughters: Amanda, currently attending the UMD psychology program and Alison, currently working and living in Wisconsin with her husband, who is attending UWS. We are looking forward to moving into the area over the next few months, and I can't wait to play some golf in the area.

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