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Fire department honors its chief engineer

Fellow firefighters voted this year to honor River Falls native Ed Nicholson as Firefighter of the Year. Submitted photo

A 21-year veteran of both the fire department and ambulance service, Ed Nicholson, hadn't planned on attending the annual firefighters banquet. The busy man had other plans.

A colleague told him it wasn't optional, so he re-arranged. The FD's chief engineer, Nicholson said he had no idea he was receiving the Firefighter of the Year award.

Was he surprised?

"Yes, I was -- totally," he said.

He followed in his dad Ted's footsteps when he joined the department in 1988. About the same time, he heard the newly formed ambulance service also needed help, so at the behest of buddies, he joined that, too.

Nicholson splits his time between the two services, working three nights for the ambulance service and the other nights for the fire department. Fortunately he lives within two minutes of both stations so can often work his "on-call" shifts from home.

Being chief engineer gives Nicholson plenty of responsibility. He ensures that all equipment works well, including everything from truck engines and hoses to ladders and pager batteries.

He said sometimes if the job requires more space or heavy-duty repair equipment, he gets help at and from the city garage.

As the Journal visited Nicholson at the station this week, a fellow firefighter thrust a big block of wax into his hand. With it, he'll lubricate the ladders. He said wax works better than grease and doesn't attract dirt.

While he has had special training for fire truck maintenance, Nicholson said his "day job" work also helps with his fire department duties. He drives a heavy-duty tow truck for Twin Cities Transport & Recovery in St. Paul.

The company specializes in heavy-duty transport and towing as well as emergency recovery of big vehicles. When he's not driving the trucks, he's working on them.

For example, he'd be the one to figure out how to get a big, wrecked truck back to an upright position and haul it away. Nicholson said the company sometimes uses inflatable balloon-type devices to right a large overturned vehicle.

Trained for the trade in 1977, Nicholson said, "That's when I started learning how to drive big trucks."

Work for TCTR also gives him specialized knowledge of what to do when a big truck has crashed and spilled something hazardous, a situation firefighters sometimes face.

When asked about his most memorable fire, he recalls a grass fire that broke out not long after he'd joined the department. Voracious flames consumed 11 buildings and 25 acres.

"That was our first big fire," he said.

Nicholson guesses that collectively, the time he works for his paid job plus the fire and ambulance departments probably adds up to about 90 hours per week. Often he can work his on-call shifts from home, other times he's at the station and under the trucks.

Fire Chief Bob Schwalen said about Nicholson: "We appreciate what he does a great, great deal."

Though any firefighter can make a recommendation, it is past firefighters of the year who vote to designate the next award winner. Schwalen said they look for examples of people performing above and beyond the call of duty.

He recalls once when a fire truck sat in front of the station, he noticed a black spot under it. As he approached, Nicholson slid out from underneath.

Schwalen said it's like him to just climb under there and do what was needed, even though the engine sat in the street. He said Nicholson does a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make sure the department's equipment and machinery works well.

Both men agree that chief engineer is an important job. When it's time to roll, everything has to be ready.

When asked what he likes most and least about his volunteer jobs, Nicholson says though he likes the work, sometimes repeat ambulance customers challenge his patience. Some of them could take a taxi and save lots of money.

Nicholson says the need is less subjective with fire department work. When people call, it's usually with good reason. Though he admits to not having a lot of time and not sleeping enough, he enjoys the work.

He said, "It gets your adrenaline going some days."