Weather Forecast


Flames burns down after 40 years of firefighting

Paul "Pauly" Whiteside retired as a firefighter after volunteering his time and life to the River Falls area for over 40 years. Submitted photos

In the years around 1972, a short siren blast would summon the on-call firefighters to a fire out of town, and a long blast would mean there was a fire in town.

"If the wind was blowing in the wrong direction," said Paul "Pauly" Whiteside, "some of the time you couldn't hear the whistle."

The firefighters would quickly hurry to the fire station where they were dispatched by the power plant. From there they arrived to put on the blaze as fast as they could.

Since Whiteside started working as a black helmet, or a "regular firefighter," said Fire Chief Scott Nelson, many things have changed.

Now one more thing will change: Whiteside has retired after 40 years and six months of service as a River Falls firefighter.

"I just thought it was time," he said. "It's a young man's game. Fire is dangerous."

River Falls is serviced by a paid, on-call fire department that's funded by the city. When Whiteside first started, the surrounding towns were responsible for providing their equipment.

As a result, they fashioned old vehicles into fire trucks and tenders, the trucks that haul tanks of water. Whiteside said at one time the department was using an old Army jeep.

"(Now), they are designed specifically for a purpose," said Doug Rudesill, a River Falls volunteer firefighter who started in 1986. "Where then, you just modified a truck to fit the needs."

Instead of the siren to call firefighter to a scene today, their pagers do -- something that Whiteside said he still is not used to turning on each morning.

What has not changed is the irregular hours that he served.

"We're always on call, and my wife and my kids are always patient," he said. "I always drop everything and run out on a fire call."

He said he remembered one Christmas day he was notified of a fire and that, "it was really neat where they didn't give me any problems leaving for a fire call."

Nelson said what makes Whiteside unique is his dedication.

"If you needed him, he was here and he made a very big percentage of the calls," Nelson said. "It's amazing that someone would do this for 20 years, much less 40."

Added Assistant Fire Chief Mike Moody: "Longevity is from enjoying what you're doing, enjoying the people that you're working with, and good treatment by the city and the public and the people that you need to have supporting the program for it to work."

One difference going on fire calls today, Whiteside said, is the preparation. By the time firefighters arrive at the fire station, he said they know "where we're going and what we're getting into."

He said there is also more of a focus today on the firefighter safety.

On scene, what has not changed is that, "we really feel sorry for the people, but we're there to help," said Whiteside. "We do the best job we know how to make the situation get over with, with the least amount of impact where we're at, whether that be fire or car accident."

The training that was once held one Monday a month is now held every Monday to prepare the firefighters more and better educate them about what to do at fires. These Monday nights is where Whiteside put down his black hat and put on a chef's hat.

Some people come to training from work, so, "they don't have time to eat," said Nelson, "and sometime during the training, or sometimes towards the end of it, we'll have a meal."

This was typically something like sandwiches, said Nelson, but Whiteside always served his specialty -- pickle loaf. This became a joke, so when he retired, he was presented with his very own package of it.

When he formally retired before the Police and Fire Commission, Nelson and his fellow firefighters surprised him -- not only with pickle loaf, but by retiring his helmet.

Historically, it is a tradition to retire a firefighter's helmet when he retires, said Nelson, but it isn't as common anymore.

Nonetheless, Nelson said he thought it was a nice touch, especially considering the lengthy service Whiteside has given as a firefighter.

"I think the people of River Falls are really lucky to have not just Pauly, but a whole group of dedicated guys and women who are on this department."