South Grove and Inver Grove Village
Fire protection in Inver Grove Heights has not always been what it is today. Early fire protection for Inver Grove Village was provided by South St. Paul and fire protection for Inver Grove Township was provided by Mendota Heights. In late 1956, the South Grove and Inver Grove Village fire departments were born, each with its own means of financing and its own area of fire protection. When Inver Grove Village and Inver Grove Township merged into the city of Inver Grove Heights in 1965, the two fire departments were merged into a single city department. The start date of the present Inver Grove Heights Fire Department is considered to be January 1957, the date the South Grove Fire Department was officially incorporated.
The Inver Grove Village Fire Department was organized under the direction of Chief Sid Hulse and provided protection for Inver Grove Village. With 22 volunteers at his command, Chief Hulse converted an old Army Crash truck into the village's first pumper and built the village's first fire station at 65th Street and Concord Boulevard.
Due to the efforts of Lee Jewel, the South Grove Fire Department was organized in 1957 to provide fire protection for the South Grove development in Inver Grove Township. With much help from the Mendota Heights Fire Department, the South Grove Fire Department subsequently contracted to provide fire protection for the entire township. Fire protection was provided by older remodeled equipment purchased by the volunteers, who responded out of a two car garage on 74th Street and Concord Boulevard.
With the incorporation of the City of Inver Grove Heights in 1965, the two departments were merged into a single city department. The combined department had sixty members, two new 1000 gallons per minute (gpm) pumpers, and two fire stations.
Calling the Firefighters
Prior to 1965, civil defense sirens were sounded to call firefighters to the fire station. The original Inver Grove Village siren was located atop Station No. 2. The siren was activated via a switch inside the fire station. A second siren was subsequently added atop the hill at 7300 Clayton Avenue, to provide coverage to the South Grove area. This siren was activated via switches in selected firefighter's residences.
The first telephone calling system used was the pyramid (or relay) system. This system was used in conjunction with and as backup to the fire siren. A telephone call to the fire department would ring telephones in five firefighter's residences. The first firefighter to answer the call would get information from the caller and then initiate the pyramid calling system. All the firefighters in the department were split up onto different lists. The firefighter taking the call would call the person at the top of each list. Those people would then contact the second person on their list, and so on, until all names on all lists had been contacted. The pyramid system was disbanded when the automated calling system was installed.
The automated calling system was an improvement to the pyramid system. A telephone call to the fire department would ring telephones in five firefighter's residences. The first firefighter to answer the call would simply dial "0", which would cause telephones to ring in all the firefighter's residences. The telephones would ring constantly until answered. If a telephone was in use when one of these calls came through, a busy signal would sound on the line, interrupting the conversation. The user would have to hang up to receive the fire call.
A Plectron system was installed in the 1970's, replacing the telephone system. Phone calls to the fire department's emergency phone line were no longer answered by firefighters. Instead, calls were answered by dispatchers at the Dakota County Sheriff's Office. The dispatcher would get information from the caller and then broadcast the message to firefighters via the Plectron system. Each firefighter was issued a Plectron desktop radio receiver. The Plectron receivers monitored a specified radio frequency, listening for an alert tone. When the alert tone was received, the Plectron receiver would "wake up", activate the speaker, and play the broadcast message.
The Plectron system remained in use until the early 1980's. At that time the Plectron desktop radio receivers were replaced by portable pagers carried by firefighters. No longer did firefighters have to be at home to receive the summons to the fire station. At the same time the 911 emergency system was activated, replacing the seven-digit emergency phone number previously used by the fire department.
While pagers remain the primary notification system for the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department, the firefighters of the present day now are able to augment the information received for a call for service, by specialized applications (Apps) on their cellular phones. Currently, the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department utilizes the Active911 app to provide additional information as well as mapping to responding firefighters.
The Inver Grove Heights Fire Department of Today
After 50 years of dedicated service provided exclusively by hundreds of volunteer firefighters, with the city growing and calls for service increasing, the demands for the provision of modern fire protection for a suburb in the state’s major metropolitan area began to take its toll. While the department’s volunteer Chiefs had performed admirably for half a century balancing their own full-time jobs and families with the needs of the city, the decision was made that with the retirement of Chief Bill McLean, the city’s last volunteer Fire Chief, a more permanent solution should be found.
In fall of 2007, Chief Judy Thill was hired as the first full-time Fire Chief of the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department. With almost twenty years of fire service experience, including eleven years as full-time Deputy Chief with the Maple Grove Fire Department and nineteen years as a volunteer paid-on-call firefighter with the Eagan Fire Department, Chief Thill set about advancing and modernizing the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department through all avenues, including response and incident mitigation, facilitating the replacement outdated equipment, expanding public education and community outreach, and reorganizing the Training Division and Officer Staff, as a start.
The Inver Grove Heights Fire Department would continue to evolve in several significant ways over the course of the next decade.
Between 2007 and 2011, call volumes increased by around 50%. In addition, increased demands for training, additional supervision of fire department operations, and upkeep and replacement of much of its older equipment, Chief Thill identified the need for a second full-time executive officer to help address growing the needs of a modern fire department.
In 2012, after twenty three years of service, volunteer paid-on-call Deputy Chief Eric Bergum was hired as the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department’s first full-time Assistant Fire Chief. With his appointment, Assistant Chief Bergum took on the responsibilities of overseeing all Inver Grove Heights Fire Department Operations and Training.
In the time between 2011 and 2015, the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department continued to evolve, while working hard to maintain its protective and fiscal responsibilities to the citizens of Inver Grove Heights. Based on calls answered divided by number of stations, the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department became the busiest volunteer paid-on-call fire department in Dakota County. The firefighters of the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department, as was their tradition for so many years, performed admirably for as long as they could in the face of the increasing demands on a busy department, in an industry that is ever-changing.
Finally, to stay ahead of what were becoming well-documented national trends in declining recruitment and retention within the volunteer fire service, in order to continue to best serve the citizens of Inver Grove Heights, and after years of careful consideration and planning, the decision was made that the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department would move to a paid on-duty shift system (duty crew) consisting mostly of the department’s volunteer paid-on-call staff. In 2015, the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department hired volunteer paid-on-call Lieutenant Paul M. Rank as the Fire Operations Supervisor, the department’s first full-time company officer (Lieutenant), to oversee scheduling and day-to-day operations of the duty crew. On January 4th, 2016 the Duty Crew was born and the first staffed engine company in the history of the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department, Engine 11 out of Station 1, responded to its first call for service.
After two years of duty crew operation by primarily volunteer paid on-call firefighters, attrition of experience members began to take its toll on the department and expose the need for consistent leadership and experience working on the duty crew. The Fire Operations Supervisor was a daytime position that balanced many additional duties in addition to overseeing company incident response. The decision was finally made to move the supervision of the duty crew away from the Fire Operations Supervisor. In 2018, Chief Thill was able to successfully obtain support to hire three full-time Captains to always oversee duty crew response. She also used the opportunity to obtain support to hire a full-time Fire Inspector, finally filling a long-standing need which had been identified with the departure of the city’s last dedicated part-time Fire Inspector in 2007. In early 2019, Fire Operations Supervisor Paul M. Rank was promoted and volunteer paid on-call Battalion Chief John E. Patnaude and Lieutenant Joshua L. Parrow were hired to fill the city’s first three full-time Captain positions, while paid on-call Lieutenant Neal E. St. Onge was hired as the city’s first full-time Fire Inspector.
As the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department began moving forward with more full-time staff, it was also working to address critical need that had been decades in the making. For many years, the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department struggled to provide fire suppression, rescue, and EMS coverage to the spread-out southern end of the city. The department relied heavily on its mutual aid partners from Rosemount and Eagan in order to respond to fires as both Inver Grove Heights Fire Stations were situated in the more densely populated northern half of the city. After working diligently to select a site and draft a design that would best suit the city’s current and future needs, in late 2018, ground was finally broken near the geographic center of the city at 9200 Courthouse Blvd for what would eventually become Fire Station 2.
Following a little more than a year of construction and refinement, work on Fire Station 2 was finally completed and the fire department moved its Administration and the primary operation of its duty crew into the new building. It had been more than thirty years since the old Fire Station 2 had closed on Concord and 65th Street, and never before had Inver Grove Heights fire companies been positioned to respond so well into the south end of the city. In addition to being a new building with all the modern amenities to house firefighters around the clock, Station 2 was also outfitted extensively as a training facility, with many areas of the building designed and equipped to support firefighters participating in both practical and classroom training. The first volunteer paid on-call fire companies began responding out of Station 2 in November 2019 and full duty crew operation was begun on January 5th, 2020.