Department honors top firefighter
Matt Cernohous says he felt true surprise when at the Fire Department's annual awards banquet Jan. 19 they called him to accept the Firefighter of the Year award.
The group of past recipients votes to pick each year's honoree.
"I've been an active member since 2002," he said, actually since 2000 counting training and his probationary period.
He recently earned a promotion to lieutenant and feels positive about the challenges of fulfilling a leadership role. Cernohous said he enjoys the job's adrenaline and elements of danger; he trusts and uses as protection the instincts learned in training.
He likes doing the "first-in" attack, calling it an important job. For example, when fire was consuming the St. Croix Sport building on Hwy. 35, he was driving the first truck.
Asked how he became interested in firefighting, Cernohous said as a kid he looked up to firefighters and thought their job was "pretty cool." He also remembers family friend Rich Cashman wearing a pager when he visited the house.
Cernohous said he hung out a lot doing outdoor activities with his cousin, Chris, at the time he joined the department. He learned a lot through his cousin's experience and became even more intrigued. Cernohous said he also has an uncle who served the department.
He explains that his father is a barber, and Cernohous was often in his Main Street shop. Around the time he'd graduated River Falls High School in 1994, assistant chief Bernie Purfeerst was getting his hair cut and said to Cernohous: "We're getting some new people."
The young man thought about it, but at the time -- he was young and unfocused, plus the department had a rule then that firefighters had to live within city limits. Years later, the timing was better for him to join.
Cernohous is married to Tara, and the couple has two children, 9-year-old Ethan and 6-year-old Emma. Though he knows the job sometimes worries Tara, he said his family fully supports his firefighting efforts.
His kids think it's cool and so do their classmates.
The honored firefighter said in his decade on the department, the number of fire calls has increased, but he also thinks River Falls has gotten better at keeping blazes from starting.
"Our community has become more prevention oriented," Cernohous said.
That creates a better trend -- more calls but fewer actual fires and less damage and loss. He comments that many calls are for carbon monoxide alerts or sensitive smoke alarms.
With a smile, the firefighter of the year admits that he has one weakness commonly known around the department. Cernohous doesn't care for the sometimes-graphic medic work firefighters do, and he endures plenty of harassment during first-aid training about his "weak stomach."
"I don't care for some of the first-aid situations that come with the job," he said.
A highlight of the job for him is helping at the public schools with Fire Safety week. Cernohous notes that the kids always remember what they learned even years earlier about fire safety.
He said working with the kids is fun and does a good thing, "That's why I do it, it's my way of giving back."
The young firefighter feels a sense of accomplishment with a promotion to lieutenant. He describes the job as taking on more departmental responsibility, including the coordination of people and tasks. He said the duty requires incident command and more communication than before; a lieutenant also looks more at the 'big picture' of the job and scene.
"You gotta be one step ahead of everything," he said.
Cernohous also likes the "officer structure" of the Fire Department. He says it seems to be effective and most importantly, everyone gets along and works well together. The firefighter calls that "very important."
Cernohous, who works at Andersen Windows, says he anticipates a long firefighting career with the local department.