Posts Tagged: kristine jepsen

Community Calling: Volunteer Firefighters

Volunteer Firefighters’ Service Roots Run Deep

By Kristine Jepsen 

Red. Siren. Fire.

It doesn’t take many descriptors to arrive at one image: Long, gleaming firetrucks braying through busy city streets, hustling toward an emergency.

Fire departments – and firefighting – have been community fixtures in our nation since the early 1600s. In 1736, Ben Franklin famously designated groups of Philadelphia residents to accompany the few fire engines in the city, ensuring some order would cut through the chaos of a crisis.

In present-day U.S., there are more than 30,000 fire departments, and they respond to more than 31 million calls annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the governing body for fire codes, standards, training, and education ( Winter is an especially crazy season for fire fighters. Half of all home heating fires occur in December, January, and February, and there are several holidays’ worth of cooking going on, which is the leading cause of home fires and related injury year-round. (story continues after photo and caption)


Above photo courtesy Ridgeway Fire Department. Volunteer firefighters in the region occasionally have controlled training exercises, such as this one, to help them get acclimated. This photo was taken in 1999 with the Ridgeway Fire Department. Bill Green – third from the right – is a 43-year veteran member of the Ossian Fire Department.
Photo at top of the page by Kristine Jepsen. Decorah Firefighter Eric Sovern works with fellow department members at a Wednesday training session. Adequate equipment and training combine to influence a community’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, which approximates how well its fire service can manage fires within 4.5 miles of the station. This ration – on a scale of 1 (best) to 10 (no service) – is used by insurance companies to determine the area’s private fire insurance rates.


While better wiring and building materials, as well as improvements in communication systems and firefighting equipment, make it far less likely that entire cities will be engulfed by one fire, modern firefighters still inherit the legacy of defending each citizen’s interests as one’s own – the very heart of community service – often in a Swiss-Army-knife kind of way.

“There’s something both profoundly humbling and noble about being among the folks who can help in someone’s darkest hour,” says Eric Sovern, a firefighter with the Decorah Fire Department. He moved with his family from Minneapolis – which has a professional fire department – and was surprised to learn that becoming a trained volunteer firefighter was as straightforward as filling out an application.

“I’m not going to lie – it is every kid’s dream to drive a firetruck,” he says with characteristic humor, “but seriously, this is community service that you can express an interest in – like applying for public office – and if you’re a good fit once you learn more about it, there you go. You’re in, ” he explains.

Beyond the parameters regarding age and fitness – in Decorah, members may serve up to age 56, and each is subject to an annual fitness test to ensure they can manage heavy equipment under duress – group compatibility is most important. New applicants attend department meetings and observe training drills, then meet with elected captains for an interview. If approved, the entire department – usually 25-30 members – votes on acceptance.

“It’s a sort of match-making,” Sovern explains, “and understandably so. Within a department, there has to be unanimous trust of one another to do often dangerous work, when you literally cannot see your gloved hand in front of your SCBA mask.” (Firefighters wear compressed air tanks and use a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus — like SCUBA divers – in low-oxygen fire scenarios.)

Above photo courtesy Decorah Fire Department

Once approved, ‘probationary’ members begin 40-80 hours of training to achieve their Firefighter I rating, the minimum level of competency mandated by most states and governed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Skills include knowledge of fire science – what fires need to survive and how they behave – practical skills like ladder-handling and SCBA efficiency, and an understanding of how the department maneuvers as a team in response to an emergency.

At the scene, the local fire department chief and assistant chiefs act as command central, deploying people and equipment. Depending on the fire’s location and complexity, they may call for mutual aid, i.e. the assistance of fire departments in neighboring towns.

“To me, that’s the essence of volunteer fire-fighting,” says Bill Green, a 43-year veteran member of the Ossian Fire Department. Green grew up in a fire station with his dad, washing truck tires as a kid. He has achieved the NFPA’s Firefighter II rating and has taught advanced skills to Northeast Iowa’s fire departments as an instructor through Iowa State University. “If you need more water, personnel, or specialized equipment – like a tube for extracting someone from a grain bin – you know you can count on your fellow departments to be there. No questions, no power struggles. You show up and trust you’re working together for that family or business.”

Ossian fire gear – photo by Kristine Jepsen

The timing of mutual aid is critical, Green explains. “Every minute it takes to knock down a fire feels like a lifetime to the firefighters inside, thumping their axes on the floor in front of them to make sure it’s sound. It is always best to get additional resources on the way right way, rather than waiting to see if they might be needed.”

It’s common for fire service people who have retired or “aged out” of active service to continue to respond to calls, even though they might not carry a department pager anymore. This passing of the torch inspires confidence in younger members, Green says. “Here in town we have some guys in their 70s who obviously aren’t on the front lines anymore, but when we’re laying out hose to go into a fire and look back and see one of them running the pumper [truck], we know that he knows his job and we can just do ours. He’s already got our secondary [water supply] set. He knows what we’re going to need. It’s a marriage of time and experience that you can’t learn in a book.”

That experience takes firefighters beyond fires as well. Departments now respond to increasing numbers of calls for medical help (two-thirds of the total annually). Specialized rescue may involve climbing up a tree or down a bluff or into water to handle emergency situations, or operating the Jaws of Life in auto accidents.

Above photos courtesy Decorah Fire Department

“Our goal is to have people trained in a variety of challenging situations so when the community turns to us, we are ready. Everyone pitches in where they feel most able,” says Decorah training officer Kurtis Johnson, who is Firefighter II-certified and regularly consults with professional departments to bring effective topics and strategies to departments in the Driftless Region.

The team also has to be equipped to handles calls involving hazardous materials such as anhydrous ammonia and chlorine as well as the lethal chemicals that turn up in methamphetamine labs.

“These are HAZMAT-suit kinds of situations, and they turn up more often than you might think,” says Bruce Goetsch, Winneshiek County’s emergency management officer. While he and his wife are currently reserve members of the Frankville department, which serves their rural home, Goetsch previously served on a departments in Illinois for 33 years, 12 of them as chief. The Local Emergency Planning Committee, based in Goetsch’s office, keeps record of known quantities of hazardous materials in Winneshiek County. The fire department is mandated to manage them in the event of accidents or exposure.

The funding for all of this important work comes primarily through local property taxes, but the volunteer fire department’s line in a town’s budget tends to be minimal, says Spring Grove, Minnesota, fire chief Shaun Hansen. “Our department of 28 firefighters operates on a budget of $70,000, and that’s the meat and potatoes to keep the lights on and doors open — and pay our liability insurance,” he says. “We’ve been trying for years to upgrade our SCBA tanks from the bare minimum, heavy steel tanks to more modern, fully compliant units, for example. But one unit alone might run more than $7,000.” Spring Grove also pays its firefighters an hourly wage for their time spent in training, meetings and on calls, which often take them over the state border into Winneshiek County on mutual aid.

Decorah fire trucks – photo by Kristine Jepsen

Decorah’s budget, by contrast, compensates volunteer fire staff for their time on calls only (issued in a lump sum, in November) and pays three skilled personnel who rotate in shifts so the fire station is manned 24 hours a day. They respond quickly to low-impact calls – as when a home carbon monoxide detector goes off (often needing new batteries) – and monitor communications about more complex calls as firefighters are being paged. On calls, they are designated drivers and water pump operators.

Public funding will often not cover large purchases, though, such as fire trucks and other large equipment. Municipal departments that serve rural areas – such as Winneshiek County – may then receive funding from adjoining groups like the Decorah Rural Fire Protection Association. In the Decorah firehouse, for example, some trucks are owned by the city proper, while others are owned and maintained by the rural association. In 2014, the two entities co-purchased a new truck to replace two outdated trucks.

The firefighters themselves also staff a fund-raising organization – the Decorah Firefighters Association – to pay for additional tools and infrastructure that make service easier or safer. Decorah’s association purchased thermal imaging cameras to better gauge the intensity of fires at a distance, or to find missing persons in the dark. Firefighters also funded and chipped in labor to build an auxiliary garage behind the station so often-accessed equipment could be easily reached.

In Ossian, several community advocates recently succeeded in a 20-year effort to fund and build a multi-door fire station, upgrading from a narrow downtown garage fronting a busy street. “Our trucks were parked in there, nose to tail, so tight we could get only one door open and had to crawl across the seats,” Green says as he strolls the length of Ossian’s new fully equipped station, opening the garage doors so that all six trucks bask in sunlight. “We’d back everything into the street to get assembled to answer a call. It was nuts. Here, we can breathe a little.”

Above photo courtesy Decorah Fire Department

Regulations and ratings and funding aside, much of a fire department’s effectiveness comes only with years of combined experience, firefighters say. “No two calls are alike,” Sovern says, explaining that his six current years of service have allowed him only glimpses of the long commitment of others before him. Shaun Hansen, in his 30s and with eight years of service on the department, says he still marvels at how the deep-rooted sense of community helps his department provide meaningful aid.

“The best thing is that when you’re out on a call, it’s for and among friends and family. You’re not doing a job; you’re doing your best to save someone you care about from losing something, possibly their life. It’s nice to be there – really there – trained to offer help.”


Kristine Jepsen would like to thank firefighters and civil volunteers one and all for their service, often while the community is fast asleep upon a winter’s night. When not capturing stories for Inspire(d) and writing for fun, she runs a grass-fed beef company, Grass Run Farms, with her husband. 

How to Support Your Local Fire Department

Donate to your area department fund-raisers: pancake feeds, firemen’s dances, fun runs and online crowdsourcing. These are also great opportunities to meet your local fire service volunteers, out of uniform.

Donate skills and services: Ask at your local fire station if you can help with upcoming projects or maintenance.

Join the fire service: Check into becoming a firefighter or support staff member in your local department.

Artist Feature: Sew Nuts! Knitting with Bev Bakkum


Purl Up and Get Cozy with local knitting expert Bev Bakkum

Story & photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Winter 2011-12 Inspire(d)

“SOS! SOS! I’ve dropped a stitch and I can’t move forward!”

It’s a typical distress call, and Bev Bakkum is on it. She arranges the specimen gently under her scope, adjusts her 2.0 reading glasses, and peers at the problem, her eyes searching its tissuey edges.

“Ah, ha!” she says, laughing, both hands already at work, fingers delicately separating strands. Within another minute, she pulls the partially knitted sweater, made of a luxurious black wool yarn, from her examining table and pats it triumphantly. “You dropped a stitch when you started from the wrong side, but I found it,” she tells her friend and sometime student Bonnie, who is making the sweater as a gift for her husband. “You’re good to go again.”

Bev_AdjustedBakkum is an “incurable” knitter herself (as in, knits with her first cup of coffee, on her lunch break, in the evenings while watching TV, maybe even in her sleep) and teaches a host of classes at Decorah’s Blue Heron Knittery.

The teaching part weaves easily in and out of her work on her own projects, which usually (and concurrently) include at least one sweater, a throw or blanket, and several smaller whimsies like a Christmas stocking fringed in a pink “frou frou” yarn – mostly gifts for others. Several of her finished items go on display at Blue Heron, either on mannequins or in the windows – until the appointed recipient’s birthday or anniversary rolls around, and the gift is given. Several have taken top prize at county fairs.

“I grew up where children were seen, not heard; so to keep me occupied when I was little and noisy, my Grandma Geraldine would hand me two needles with eight stitches on them and I would spend all afternoon in the window seat just sliding those stitches from one needle to the other. I never knitted anything, of course, but each time I came back, there’d be a couple more rows on the needle. Of course, she was doing it, but she’d congratulate me and pat me on the back, and it kept me fired up to keep going.”

froufrouyarnThese days, Bakkum tries some of the most complicated patterns she can find, most recently including a square in the Great American Aran Afghan pattern that had 64 threads (or start/stop points) within just one of the 4-inch-by-4-inch cable-knit sections. “The fun part is all the skills and techniques,” she says. “You either knit [v-shaped stitches] or you purl [bead-like stitches], but there are hundreds of variations to learn, and you’re never so advanced that there’s nothing left to learn.”

Another of Bakkum’s major talents is tailoring. In fact, she ran her own business, Sew Nuts, out of her rural Waukon home while raising her nine children, alternating cutting and fitting with cooking and bathtime and bedtime book reading.

“The sewing started when I was 10,” she says, “and my mother gave me a sewing machine and a stack of fabric and told me ‘I’m not buying any more clothes, you’re going to make your own.’ Well, let me tell you, I wore a lot of ugly clothes, and the sheer embarrassment of it all encouraged me to get better. Quick. Also, my mother was a perfectionist, and I can’t tell you how many seams I had to take out to get them just right. I guess that’s where I got a lot of my sense of what’s ‘good enough’ to call finished.”

basketyarnAt Blue Heron, owned and managed by returned Decorah-ian Sarah Iversen, Bakkum indulges her multi-tasking by assisting others who are working at different rates on various sweaters, afghans, or other patterns. “Regulars” of Blue Heron’s drop-in knitting sessions groan and roll their eyes when Bakkum’s tailoring experience comes up.

“Beware: she’ll make you do a swatch,” Shelly says. “And if it doesn’t come out right, she’ll make you do it again ­­– with littler needles.”

“Or larger needles,” Bakkum interjects. “A swatch is a small sample of a garment pattern that allows you to test the weight of your yarn and size of your stitches. Then you can mathematically recalibrate the pattern to your target size for the finished sweater. If you’re going to spend 300 to 500 hours and buy maybe 900 to 1600 yards of yarn for a project, you darn well want it to fit!”

“The trouble is, she’ll make you do a swatch every time you start a project, even if you just finished one like it!” another member, Theresa, says.

“And that’s because as you get better at knitting, the tension of your stitches changes,” Bakkum soothes. “You won’t even notice the improvement until you’re another several hours in. I’m telling you, the swatch is absolutely necessary.”

NorwegianSweaterIn addition to her natural proclivity to task-mastering, Bakkum helps other members unravel small mistakes and interpret cryptic pattern instructions. “There’s no standard for knitting as there is for lace crochet, for example,” Bakkum says. “I can pick up a book in Korean or German and accomplish that lace just by reading the charts, but with knitting, there’s no established instruction. And some writers are better teachers than others.”

When she gets fed up with a pattern’s gibberish ­– or sees ways to improve the design – Bakkum simply writes her own and prints copies for class members. That’s where this year’s Christmas stocking pattern came from. “It’s a big stocking – eight inches across at the top,” she says, laughing, “because we want it to actually hold those stuffers, not just look pretty on the mantel.”
The pattern is simple and encourages flourishes of frilly yarns, trinkets stitched onto the Christmas tree design, and bold contrast of color on the heel and toe. Throughout each class, Bakkum offers tidbits from her own leftover yarn bag and reminds the others to just have fun with the project.

“Yeah, don’t let her fool you,” Shelly mutters with a smirk, ribbing Bakkum without looking up from her stocking. “The reason she’s got so many great remnants in her leftover bag is that she always buys up the coolest new yarns.”

“That’s true,” says another member, Kris, whom the others say can’t turn down anything sparkly or fluorescent. “You don’t want Bev here the day they open a new shipment of yarn.”

“I can’t help it!” Bakkum retorts. “When I was kid, my only choice was Red Heart acrylic. Now, anything you can imagine, there’s a beautiful yarn made from it – soy, bamboo, corn silk, angora, cashmere, alpaca, hand-dyed wools, etc… There are so many gorgeous yarns to choose from.”

Blue Heron’s core group of 10 or so knitters gathers each Monday night (a time designated for drop-ins) and/or Wednesday night (social knitting time) and Saturdays sometimes, too, depending on class scheduling. The group united a year ago when they all tackled a pattern now referred to as the “Lucy Shawl.” At the time, the group included a Monona, Iowa, resident of Cuban descent named Lucy, who would drop in after her work as a translator at Decorah’s hospital.

LucyShawlIt quickly became Lucy’s joke to complain about counting the pattern’s 1095 starting stitches in English. “She’d say, ‘Can’t I just stop at 1,000? What do I need those others for?’” Bakkum recounts with a chuckle. Eventually, though, Lucy mastered the shawl and went on to make nine others from memory.

When Lucy was killed in a car accident in March 2011, the other members of Blue Heron’s knitting classes made variations on the shawl in her memory. They are displayed on Blue Heron’s west wall, an undulating tribute to creativity, knitting as meditation, and, of course, the unapologetic honesty and humor in their camaraderie. To illustrate for others why they spend their odd hours together, members are considering custom printing t-shirts that feature short-hand familiar to knitters:
(across the front)
Do you know the code?”
(across the back)
“Knit 2 together”

“We talk about all kinds of things,” Theresa says. “World politics, husbands [or wives], yoga stretches that are good during our breaks, YouTube videos we found to explain some stitch we didn’t understand, whatever is irking us that day…you know, the usual. This place is like a general store with an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove. You just want to be near the warmth of it.”


Kristine_Spring14When she was little, Kristine Kopperud Jepsen made lots and lots of hideous clothes from old curtains. She has since sworn off polyester and prefers to buy more naturally occurring couture from talents like Bev Bakkum.

Blue Heron Knittery, 300 West Water Street, Decorah
Knitters of all levels of experience are welcome to drop in for company or assistance anytime the store is open, with scheduled gatherings weekly. The store offers two areas for work and conversation: one with tables and one arranged like a living room. “And there are comfortable chairs for spouses who must wait for their shopper,” Bakkum adds.

Paula Brown – The Goods


By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

If you spend any time in or around Decorah, you probably know the incurable creative behind The Goods by Paula Brown.

Paula works her main magic – amazing jewelry, purses, and knitted wear – out of an eclectic gallery/shop in her rural Decorah home, but you’ll also find her behind the bar at the Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah – her part-time gig – several nights a week.

Toward the holidays, you might catch her standing on a chair, styling the displays in the hotel lobby for the annual Gift of Art artisan craft show, an event she founded and sponsors.

PaulaBrownOr maybe you’ve seen her throw back her blonde head of hair and laugh, revealing a stack of hand-knitted scarves that fit together like bangles, or a riveting necklace of hand-selected turquoise. Ask for her card, and she’ll dig it out of a hand-knitted, felted, and dyed tote. Yup, of her own design.

“I make things,” the Dubuque native says with a shrug. “I don’t fit in a box creatively. It’s what people need or what people want,” – she often takes cues from the folks she meets tending bar. “I can get lost in the process” – for example, spending a whole day crafting a wallet of upcycled corduroy to match one of her purses – “how do you stop?”

Paula (pictured, right – photo courtesy Paula Brown) creates her own designs for goods, and then, even when something sells well at craft shows or in her shop, she’ll modify and remake the designs, turning always toward something new. “I want to make things accessible, whether that’s the value of small earrings or a shoulder bag,” she says. “People change. Their interests and tastes change. It gives me a chance to change and evolve, too.” Take the scarf bangles, “Nec Lux,” as she calls them. “I had customers asking me about different textures and colors of yarns, and I thought, ‘Why wear just one at a time?’” And so, the idea of mixing and matching the narrow bands was born.


It’s the same with her purses and tote bags, which she hand-knits or cuts from unique or vintage clothing scavenged from thrift stores. Each bag features a natural emblem – a tree, a bird, or a palette straight out of an Iowa sunset – but the sizes and shapes are unique. “I had moms ask me for a backpack purse – something unique but durable, that would stay put when you have a kid by the hand and bag full of water bottles and snacks.”

She’s big on this kind of function, noting that quality fasteners, clasps, zippers, and finish stitching mean her pieces will live up to living. “My work is meant to be worn. And washed. And worn again,” she says. Any problems? She’ll repair it.

And while running a shop from her country home might seem removed from mainstream commerce, it’s a deliberate step toward making a living from her artistic tendencies. (Below photo and bottom hat photo courtesy Paula Brown.)


Since starting at a flea market her first year of high school, Paula has traveled thousands of miles and hung thousands of handmade goods on her 10-foot-by-10-foot display at art shows across the region, even as her family grew to include her husband and two sons. She’s also built a website and shipped items to customers, but none of those outlets afforded the joy of watching art transform someone in person, she says, having them see right where it was made, amid her hand-drawn design sketches and scraps of fabric on her cutting table.

“I love seeing customers touch a fabric, or feel a smooth pendant or handmade button, or try something on – and then there it is – that joy,” she says. “That’s why I do it. It’s me saying, ‘I made this just for you.’”


Kristine Jepsen understands the compulsion to ‘make things,’ as evidenced by whole drawers in her home of light-gage wire, glitter, beads, fabric scraps, papers and, especially, writing instruments. She’s proud to call the Driftless home, where creatives are far from the exception.

Want to see more?

You can visit Paula Brown’s The Goods Studio Store Saturdays, 10am-3pm or by appointment.

The Goods is also a stop on the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour October 2-4, 2015

The annual Gift of Art sale, organized by Paula and featuring six local artists, will be Saturday, December 5, 10 am – 7pm in the Hotel Winneshiek lobby. She also manages the local artwork on display throughout the hotel year-round, including a new collection of her own paintings. Visit The Goods Studio Store on Facebook for details.