Niehaus serves 21 years on department
Dale Niehaus holds his helmet Nov. 11 at the fire station in Osakis, Minnesota. Niehaus milks 100 cows and is a member of the city’s fire department. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
OSAKIS, Minn. – When Dale Niehaus is milking his herd of 100 Holsteins, his attention is split. His focus is on the task at hand but also on the pager on his hip.
Niehaus not only manages his herd in a tiestall barn near Osakis but has also been a volunteer firefighter with the Osakis Fire Department for more than two decades.
Niehaus also farms 800 acres. Sometimes, his pager goes off in the middle of fieldwork.
“I’ve had to shut off the tractor and go up to the fire hall,” Niehaus said. “I have a truck or a four-wheeler nearby so that I can jump in it and get up there.”
Niehaus usually begins morning chores between 4:30 and 5. There are times he is on a fire call all night then comes home and walks directly to the barn.
“When we have structure fires, we leave at maybe 10:30 at night and don’t get done until 4 or 5 in the morning,” Niehaus said. “We get back to the station, and the guys say to me, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to milk cows.’”
However, Niehaus is quick to give credit to his fellow firefighters and said they have busy schedules too.
“There are guys who have other jobs that begin at 5 or 6,” he said. “They don’t get any sleep then either. You have to juggle your family, work and the calls. Your sleep has to come last to make it all work.”
A shortage of recruits 21 years ago led Niehaus to volunteer.
“The small towns were getting smaller, so they didn’t have as many business people right in town to be on the department,” he said.
Niehaus was farming with his dad, Joe, and stepmother, Beth. He has since taken over the farm. In the past, the farm had been considered too far from the station for Niehaus to be a candidate for the department.
The lack of recruits changed that.
“They expanded the response time (to get to the station) to six minutes,” Niehaus said. “My name came up, and I said, ‘Why not?’”
He had also looked up to firefighters as a child.
“What kid doesn’t want to be on the fire department, right?” Niehaus said.
When Niehaus joined in June 2011, he was scheduled to begin his training that fall. Then on Sept. 11, the world changed. Within one morning at the World Trade Center, more than 300 firefighters died in service along with other safety and rescue personnel. The images were everywhere in the media for months afterward.
“I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Niehaus said. “It really made me think, do I really want to be here? But, I stuck with it, and it’s been great.”
Training changed in the wake of 9/11. For instance, a system for identifying firefighters was put in place in case they were injured beyond recognition. Firefighters now have two metal tags with their identification number on them. If the fire is big enough where more than one unit is called in, firefighters pin one tag to their clothing and give one tag to the lead firefighter before going into a burning building.
“That’s for accountability,” Niehaus said. “It all stems back to 9/11. The departments all had numbers but not the individual fire fighters.”
Niehaus’ has No. 1139.
“The only other way (to identify a burned firefighter) would be through DNA testing,” he said.
Niehaus went through 160 hours of medical and first responder training along with two nights per week for four months of training in firefighting and hazmat. Because Niehaus was the only one joining the Osakis department at the time, he drove to Parkers Prairie for training.
“I tried to get the chores done before I went,” he said.
Niehaus said he appreciates the support he has had all along to make his service possible.
“I’ve always had special people in place when I receive calls,” he said. “I’ve been blessed that way.”
In the beginning, his dad, sister and stepmother would help cover for him.
“When I was on the farm working with my dad, he understood,” Niehaus said. “He didn’t always like it when I left in the middle of chores or when in the field, but he respected it. Other family and friends stepped in too.”
Today, he and his wife, Rachel, have six children. Niehaus also has an adult daughter who lives away from home. His oldest at home, Clayton and Garrett, are among those who step in for him now.
Like Niehaus did as a child, his children look up to firefighters.
“It’s not just (toy) John Deere tractors at home,” Niehaus said. “It’s yellow firetrucks. You’ve gotta have yellow. Sometimes we have to go online to find them.”
The Osakis department has yellow trucks.
“They’re starting to change colors,” Niehaus said. “The red ones are used now for parade trucks. They’re finding out that yellow is a stimulant to the eye as a caution to slow down.”
Although Niehaus said he is glad he joined more than two decades ago, he and his fellow firefighters have to deal with the aftermath of difficult calls.
“That’s part of it when you live in a small town,” Niehaus said. “It can be people you know, so that can make things even tougher.”
As a farmer, barn fires also feel especially personal.
“You go to a barn fire and see a lot of dead cows,” Niehaus said. “It’s gut wrenching to see. The barn is engulfed in flames, and there is not much you can do. You feel the loss, but you have to do what you can do to put the fire out.”
Niehaus said he became better equipped to leave calls at the department and focus on family and work again once he was home.
“You learn,” he said. “There are people who can help you if you can’t deal with it. For the most part, the guys on the department are the ones who help you get through it.”
Everyone on the team steps up to do whatever is needed and is trained in all the jobs of firefighting.
“Generally, I’m one of the guys that goes into the fire,” Niehaus said. “I’d rather do that than be a pump operator. It’s very stressful, but I’m more of an adrenaline junky, I guess.”
He has great respect for his fellow firefighters.
“They really matter,” Niehaus said. “You all go in with the same mindset. Let’s get this fire out or let’s get this accident taken care of, and we do what we have to do to get back (to the station) safely and back to our families.”
He also sees some similarities between dairy farming and firefighting.
“It’s a lot of the same things,” Niehaus said. “If something goes wrong, you drop to a plan B or maybe even a plan C. Things go bad, things break, you have bad weather. You adjust to that and have a different plan in farming and in the fire department.”