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New system helps firefighters know who's who

New helmets and a new numbering system make it easier for Farmington firefighters to know who's who.

Members of the Farmington Fire Department are sporting a new look these days -- and a new ranking system, too.

Not too long ago, the fire department bought more than 40 helmets, courtesy of the Fire Relief Association, which approved the $8,000 expenditure. But with those helmets, firefighters also got something they can claim for years, maybe even generations, to come. They got their very own number.

It might not seem like a big deal to someone on the outside of the fire department -- lots of times, people are just happy to know there are plenty of firefighters around when they're needed. But the guys who make up Farmington's department take a lot of pride in what they do.

So much so that when some of them retire, they want to take their helmets with them. Chief Tim Pietsch said it's just one of those things. Some put them in displays in their homes. Some put their helmets away to share as a family heirloom somewhere down the road. Pietsch has even heard of a few being used as part of a flower arrangement.

When 11 longtime firefighters retired in 2009, 11 helmets left along with the men who wore them.

Fire captains Justin Elvestad and Jim Schmitz came up with an idea. Since the department was going to need to replace so much gear, they figured it might be a good time to buy a new line of helmets. While they were at it, they thought it might be a good time to come up with a way to customize those helmets, too.

New helmets

For years, Farmington's firefighters have worn yellow helmets with their names spelled out on the sides. As a firefighter was promoted, he would get a new helmet -- at first, another yellow helmet that read "lieutenant," then, helmets of different colors if he moved farther up the chain of command.

They're still sticking with that color scheme, only now, the probationary members will have yellow helmets. Firefighters will wear black helmets, with the lieutenants getting a special shield to differentiate them. Firefighter captains wear red helmets, the rescue captains wear blue helmets and the chief gets a white helmet.

But it doesn't stop there. Under the new numbering system, each firefighter gets his own number, based on years of service.

Farmington's department has been around for more than 130 years, but it's pretty tough to count all those who had come before them. To honor all of the department's founders, they decided to start the numbering system at 11 -- the first 10 are a representative of all the members of days gone by.

Number 11 represents the member who has been with the department the longest. Pietsch is 13, meaning he's got the third most seniority on the department. As new members are added, the numbers they receive will get higher. When the new helmets came in, so did new shields that had each firefighter's number on them. Those shields can be transferred from helmet to helmet, so if a helmet is damaged and replaced, the shield can still be attached.

It gets a little tricky when it comes to figuring out the officer's numbers. Each team has three captains -- the captain who has been in a captain's role the longest is given the number one. But just because they take on a new number as a leader, that does not change their firefighter number, which again, represents their seniority on the force.

The numbering concept isn't all new, though it is to Farmington. Other departments do it, in one way or another. Schmitz and Elvestad worked for several months on the system and a proposal to bring to the membership. When they finally ironed out the details, the membership voted on it.

"There was a lot of interest with the firefighters in having a number system," Pietsch said. "It was the start of another tradition."

Elvestad thinks it received support because there are a lot of members who serve for many years, but who never seek to become an officer.

"This is a way to reward them for their time and their service," Elvestad said.

"It shows their seniority at a glance," Schmitz added.

Funds from the Fire Relief Association come, in part, from the proceeds from the annual Turkey Bingo Party, held every November.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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