Langenbrunner to retire after more than three decades

After 36 years of fighting fires in the Cloquet area, Fire Chief Jim Langenbrunner is hanging up his fire-resistant coveralls and fireman's boots for a Kindle and a good pair of hiking shoes.

Jim Langenbrunner
Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Jim Langenbrunner

After 36 years of fighting fires in the Cloquet area, Fire Chief Jim Langenbrunner is hanging up his fire-resistant coveralls and fireman's boots for a Kindle and a good pair of hiking shoes.

After March 30, he will be able to go fishing when he wants to, read books without being interrupted, spend time with his wife and travel - without worrying (much) about the future of the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD).

Langenbrunner has, after all, served as commander-in-chief for Minnesota's first fire district since its creation a little over two years ago. Before that he was Cloquet Fire Chief (since 1997); prior to that promotion, he was assistant director of Public Safety/Fire for the city of Cloquet. He's been a Cloquet firefighter since March 1975.

Langenbrunner seems perfect for the role he's held so long. His no-nonsense, take-charge attitude is tempered by a wry humor ... meanwhile, the mind under the thick gray hair is constantly pondering what needs to happen next, what's good and what could be improved in his beloved fire district and how best to make that happen.

A number of those questions were answered in a two-day strategic planning session at the beginning of the month, something that will certainly ease the transition process as Langenbrunner coaches his replacement, long-time Cloquet firefighter Kevin Schroeder (see "Veteran firefighter named new chief" for more).


Battalion Chief Gordy Meagher tells about applying for a job here in his hometown when he was working full-time for a fire department in South Dakota.

"When I was contacted and offered a position, I was on-duty and standing next to my shift captain," Meagher said. "I remember Jim asking me if I could talk and my reply was 'No.' Jim said, 'Then just shut up and listen.' [They were] words that I will never forget and just solidified my anticipation of working under him."

Meagher and fellow Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge both note that Langenbrunner always put the safety of his firefighters first - before his own needs - even during the worst budget battles.

"I was told by Jim the first shift I worked as a captain that 'everyone goes home after the shift is done,'" said Kolodge, a 20-year veteran of the Cloquet force, pointing out Langenbrunner took special care to see that his staff had the best equipment available to keep them safe. "That will always stick with me. Some from the outside might view that saying as a cliché. But until you put people in a situation where you might kill them, you will never know the true meaning."

Langenbrunner certainly does. In his years on the force, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, a concussion, torn ligaments, lacerations and once fell through the floor of a burning building. In November 1996, he was the first firefighter to arrive at a house fire, when he heard a woman screaming


"I kicked in the door, and the center panel blew out and knocked the helmet off my head," he told the Pine Journal for an 'Our Neighbors' story done several months after the dramatic rescue. "I had my radio in my hand and was trying to get it into my pocket when the blast knocked it right out of my grasp."

Without a face mask, Langenbrunner got down on his belly - so he would be below the smoke and hottest air in the burning building - and started crawling toward where he thought he heard the woman screaming. It was then that he crawled over the body of a little boy.


"As I started to scoop him up, I could see some orange down at the end of the hall and see some movement down there," he said in that earlier interview. "It turned out to be a man. He was on the floor, and it looked like he was trying to raise his head. I crawled a little bit farther and grabbed him by the hand and gave him a jerk toward the door. ... By then I was out of air, so I scooped up the little kid, opened my coat up and kind of stuffed him inside."

As he arrived outside, firefighters Benji Franklin and Schroeder were arriving and they went on to help bring out the other three family members who were still in the house.

The boy Langenbrunner had rescued wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse. He started CPR on the child immediately, and also put snow on his face to stop some of the burning.

The boy and his family lived to tell the tale, and Langenbrunner and his fellow firefighters were recognized by the city council and Firehouse magazine and Langenbrunner received the Congressional award for valor.

Afterward, Langenbrunner credited the emergency room staff at Community Memorial Hospital for saving the boy and his fellow firefighters for making his decision easy.

"I found it real easy to do what I did, knowing that there were guys just 30 seconds or a minute behind me," he said. "I knew they would get me out whether I got in trouble or not."

Back then, Langenbrunner said he'd just as soon the award came in the mail rather than go through all the ceremony.

Things don't change much. In April, the Cloquet Area Fire District will receive a Local Government Innovation Award at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Langenbrunner is hoping Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger will do the honors, because Fritsinger has been "instrumental" in making the fire district a reality.


"This is the end result [actions taken by] our elected officials and administrators , so technically, it's them getting the award," Langenbrunner said, adding that it is "gratifying" to be recognized by the Humphrey School of Business, since one would figure they know what they're talking about.

He's like that. Not terribly fond of fusses, highly efficient, to the point. He's a man other firefighters respect and like to have in charge, not only because he was a good boss, but also because he wasn't afraid of hard work.

"Another way Jim was different from most chiefs is that he would be right next to you in the trenches working side by side to mitigate an emergency," Meagher said. "After calls, he would be just as dirty or bloody as the most junior member of the department. I think he never really grew out of being a fireman first and chief second."

Langenbrunner said earlier this year that saving that little boy in 1996 was one of his best moments as a firefighter.

One of Langenbrunner's proudest achievements should be his role in creating and ensuring the long-term health of the CAFD, which is the state's only independent fire district and one of three organizations statewide that fully merged one or more departments - Cloquet, Perch Lake and now Scanlon ­- into one.

In total, according to Langenbrunner, the CAFD area of fire protection covers 72 square miles, while its primary service area (for ambulance) is in excess of 250 square miles. (In addition, the Fond du Lac Reservation has also signed a contract for fire protection from the CAFD, although not ambulance coverage for the entire reservation, a portion of which is covered by the Carlton ambulance service.)

In a time of decreased aid to local governments from the state as well as shrinking property tax revenues, its inception preserved the high quality of emergency and fire services that has been a tradition in the area since the Fire of 1918.

It wasn't easy.


Planning for the district started in 2006 after an independent review stressed the need for cooperative emergency services in order to meet the current and future emergency service needs for the region. Although a total of seven different fire departments were involved in the initial discussions, in the end Cloquet and Perch Lake made the commitment to move forward. The two fire departments - Cloquet with full-time firefighters and Perch Lake with a volunteer staff - joined under a joint powers agreement in January 2009. A year later, after state legislators passed a law creating the state's first Fire and EMS Special Taxing district, the CAFD took another step toward being self-sufficient in the long term. In 2010, the Fond du Lac Reservation authorities signed a contract for fire suppression with the CAFD. This January, the Scanlon volunteer fire department officially merged with the district, bringing the total number of full-time and paid on-call staff to 58 personnel working out of three stations.

Representatives from all three stations - including all ranks of firefighters as well as CAFD board members - along with outside community members worked together for two full days March 4-5 to come up with a strategic plan for the fire district.

Langenbrunner thinks it's a good plan. So does Schroeder.

"Most fire chiefs, the biggest thing they get to do in their career is buy a new engine," Langenbrunner said, commenting on the vast changes since he started (when firefighting training was done on the job at the scene). "Our whole method of delivering service has changed. We've added stations, staff and we've changed our model.

"Sure, fire trucks still go and we still get water out of the hose, but the knowledge of how and why [we fight fires] has grown incrementally. The same holds true for EMS. What our medics do on the streets on a daily basis is amazing."

Langenbrunner leaves a better-trained and safer department behind, and the formation of the fire district likely means the CAFD will continue to provide necessary fire, ambulance and rescue services at the level needed by area residents.

That's a pretty good legacy.

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