by Dennis Dalman
For many years, on some nights, Bob Heins would get up out of bed, leave his wife snoozing as he put his clothes on. Then he would hurry out of his house and return sometimes hours later to crawl back into bed next to his still-sleeping wife.
No, Heins wasn’t some kind of midnight rambler. He was out on wee-hour fire calls.
After 32 years as a volunteer member on the Sartell-LeSauk Fire Department, Capt. Heins is now retired.
Having to leave his sleeping wife in the middle of a night is just one example of how families of firefighters also make sacrifices for the safety of their cities. Quite often, family plans are disrupted when a fire call comes in. Such unexpected calls can happen during dinners, picnics, special events and, yes, even in the middle of the night.
In some of the talks he’s given since retiring, Heins is quick to thank his family – wife Cindy and daughter Miranda – for their steadfast support through more than three decades.
“The whole family is part of a firefighters’ job,” Heins said. “There’s not only fire calls but also training nights and meeting nights when firefighters are away from their families.”
Cindy has been a cook at Sartell Senior High School for 20 years. Miranda, who was just a toddler when her father joined the fire department in 1980, now works for the city of Tulsa, Okla.
Before joining the department, Heins served for four years as a volunteer reserve officer for the Sartell Police Department.
Heins loved his job on the fire department for a number of reasons. First, he enjoyed the camaraderie and teamwork with the other firefighters as they became a virtual extended family. Second, he liked the satisfaction of helping people in crises. And third, the job helped keep him in shape. Needless to say, fighting fires and helping out at other emergencies is very physical work.
“It was almost like an excuse for me to stay in shape,” he said. “I can still do that kind of physical work, but I just felt it was time for me to retire.”
At age 59, Heins still keeps in shape. He still likes to ride bike and to “keep moving,” which is his two-word recipe for avoiding the sloth that can lead to medical problems – and worse. He and Cindy enjoy their motorcycle trips to Rapid City, S.D., a virtual mecca for them for the past 27 years.
Another way Heins “keeps moving” is his love of hunting, which took him as far as Saskatchewan, Canada quite a few times throughout the years.
Two fire calls Heins remembers most vividly are a recent one (the explosion and fire at the Verso paper mill last year) and one that happened about 20 years ago. That fire happened in Rockwood Estates mobile-home park south of Rice. The Sartell-LeSauk department was paged for mutual aid. Heins can still vividly recall the sadness and horror he felt when he and fellow firefighter Mark Guggenberger saw a young boy who had died in the fire. The child had been playing with a cigarette lighter when it set a fire, causing the boy, in fear and panic, to run and hide in a closet. The fast-spreading fire caused the boy’s death.
“It sure wasn’t one of the good moments I’ve had, that’s for sure,” Heins said in an understatement. “As firefighters we have a lot of fun and lots of joking, but then at times our work is as serious as it can get, like finding the boy’s body in that home. Those kinds of tragic things will happen sooner or later in the lives of firefighters.”
Heins said he has been impressed by how the now 30-member Sartell-LeSauk Fire Department has always prized up-to-date, state-of-the-art training and the way the more seasoned members go the extra mile to help train newer members.
Heins’ brother, Steve, was also a member of the department but had to quit when he moved out of the “call area,” too far north of Sartell for a rapid-enough fire-call response time. Heins and his brother still connect with their long-time firefighting buddies. Heins is proud to be part of the retired-firefighters organization.
“Firefighting,” he said, “becomes a hobby, and it’s a brotherhood. I’ve made a lot of good friends and have many great memories.”
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.