By Clay Schuldt
In January of this year Charles “Chuck” LeJeune retired from the Brownsville Fire Department after 38 years. LeJeune admitted that at the time of his retirement he was considered the “old man” at the station, but his fellow firefighters never gave him a hard time about it. Over the nearly 40 years the fire department has become something of a second family. In fact, it was through family that LeJeune first joined the department.
“When I joined my dad was on the fire department so I just kind of followed in his footsteps,” LeJeune said reflecting on his early firefighting days. “I went to a meeting and decided that I wanted to give it a try.”
In a town the size of Brownsville joining the fire department is no small commitment. “We’re a small department. We don’t have a lot of members so anybody who is in town and is able to go — it is their responsibility to go,” LeJeune said.
As a small department it is necessary for all the members to be trained in everything. While the fire department could be considered a volunteer department, the application process is detailed and the training is strenuous. LeJeune has trained in every area of the firefighting business, from manning the fire hose to driving the big truck. “You never know for sure who is going to show up,” explained LeJeune “so you’ve got to be able to do just about everything.”
Since Brownsville does not have an ambulance service of its own, firefighters are frequently the first to provide medical care for those in need. One of the first things a firefighter learns is that very little of the work involves fighting fires. “You never know what it is going to be, and no two calls are the same.”
The business of firefighting has changed significantly over the years. LeJeune cites communication as the biggest change in his nearly 40 years as a firefighter; specifically the way in which the firefighters are notified of calls.
“When I first joined the town siren would blow and that was the only way anybody was ever notified. People would go down to the station and wait for someone to show up who knew what was going on. After that it was telephones, and that was fine if you were at home. Later we got pagers and radios, which is how it is done now with the county dispatching us.”
The amount of training has increased as well. “You kind of learned from the older more experienced firefighters, but now there is so much classroom training. We would always meet twice a month, and it seems like every meeting there would be some kind of training.”
That said, LeJeune admits the training does come in handy out in the field as being firefighter is often dangerous. Any major structure fire, be it house or a barn, is just as deadly today as it was 40 years ago, though LeJeune credits advancements in firefighting equipment as helping create safer scenarios.
“When we first got air packs they had steel tanks, which were very heavy. Then we upgraded to aluminum, which was better, and now we have a carbon fiber tank.”
One of LeJeune’s most vivid memories is from the weekend of the 2007 flooding. “That was quite a weekend there. That all started out on Friday night. We were paged out to try and evacuate Wildcat because they were afraid the road would wash out. We went through the whole campground and warned the people that they should get out.”
With that task completed, LeJeune returned home only to be paged again 15 minutes later. This time the call was to deal with the mudslide threatening the highway and homes along the bluffs. “That’s what the whole weekend was like,” he said.
The next day LeJeune spotted a vehicle from Austin, Minn., with a boat attached. LeJeune later learned that the vehicle belonged to a first responder from Austin who had been paged to assist with the flooding. Departments from all over the state had been dispatched to help out during Brownsville’s crisis and LeJeune was very appreciative of their help.
Of course the Brownsville Fire Department is more than willing to provide assistance for other communities if they should ever get the call.
Reflecting on his time with the department, LeJeune thanks most of the people with whom he worked. “I made a lot of friends; you get to be a close knit group. You need to trust the person behind you.”
Even though LeJeune has been retired for the last eight months it still feels strange for him not to be on call. “I’ve been a part of it for so long, and every time I come into town and see the door open I wonder where they have gone.”
Still, LeJeune is optimistic about the fire department’s future even if he’s not part of the crew, believing Brownsville’s safety is in good hands. “We got some good young people in there and some older experienced veterans — it’s a good mix.”
LeJeune admits he is reluctant to talk about his career as a firefighter, saying, “Nobody goes into this type of public service to take credit. It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
LeJeune has lived in Brownsville his whole life and believes his 38 years with the department is the least he could do for his hometown.
However it is the hard work and dedication of people like LeJeune that makes towns like Brownsville worth protecting.