by Jim Boyle
An Elk River firefighter talked Lyle Collins into joining the Elk River Fire Department in 1964.
The Elk River man went on to serve 20 years on the department, all while starting and raising a family of 13 with his wife DeLoris.
Their children grew up hanging around the fire station, watching their dad hang from the back of the fire truck, whether it was on the way to a call or in a parade.
Lyle, who put in 32 years with Elk River Municipal Utilities, stayed on the department until riding on the back of the truck was outlawed. That’s when he stepped down.
Two of his children, however, joined in the years that followed Lyle’s retirement. They are now veterans on the department. Phil, a district chief, joined in 1988, and Jeremy, a lieutenant on the Elk River department, joined in 1994. They didn’t need any convincing to join, though. The thought of following in dad’s footsteps intrigued them from a young age.
“We wanted to be part of it,” Phil said, “part of the camaraderie.”
Jeremy, always quick with a wise-crack to lighten things up when they get a little too heavy, said he just wanted to ride around in a fire truck.
He also says it’s a thrill pulling up to a school in a fire truck and seeing their children among a group of kids waving excitedly at the firefighters on the fire truck.
Helping people out is part of the DNA make-up that has made these Collins boys successful firefighters.
Rich Niemela, a brother-in-law of the Collins brothers, joined the department on Sept. 9, 2001 — two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center. All the reasons behind his decision to join came rushing to him in the wake of the tragedy.
“It really makes a person think,” he said. “I was struck once again by the camaraderie I saw on the television screen.”
Accepting the huge commitment it takes to serve as a firefighter, and having the support of a spouse and other family members, is also critical.
For every thrill that serving on the department provides fire fighters, it also takes them away from their families. Kids’ birthdays, baptisms, graduations and weddings are missed. But the stuff of daily lives like sporting events, school activities and dinner suffers, too. That weighs on the spouses of these and other men on the department.
“It’s about choices,” Phil said. “You’re there to help people out. It’s a huge commitment.”
The thought of sleeping through a call when people’s homes and lives are on the line is impossible to fathom for the Collins boys.
“You might get a call on Christmas, but there’s a family that might not be having a Christmas at all,” Phil said.
Along with the camaraderie and fellowship, there’s a fair amount of harassment.
They take time to play practical jokes on one another and they don’t let a comrade forget if he does something a little bit funny or downright stupid — like the time a firefighter didn’t quite catch a command and pulled out of the fire station with a fire hose streaming off the back of the truck. It was funny until they had to re-load the hose on the truck.
Firefighting is a stressful job, and these men admit it’s an adjustment to get used to the things they see and experience on the job.
Jeremy serves (informally) as the department’s class clown for mandatory training sessions. If things get too serious, he’s likely to scan though the ring tones on his phone and find one to cut through the build-up of tension. Comic relief is a necessary component of the job. Making sure firefighters don’t carry too much on their minds when they get home is another.
Lyle Collins remembers when the cafe owned by Frank Driessig burned in downtown Elk River. He wasn’t yet on the department, but he was hooked into watching the alley as firefighters battled the blaze. “It was colder than hell,” Lyle recalled.
Firefighting when the temperature falls below zero or reaches 80 degrees and high humidity becomes exponentially more grueling.
Lyle never talked up — or down — firefighting. He’s always been a man of few words, and once the work or conversation is done his colleagues on the department will notice that he didn’t stick around. But when the next call came in, he was right there to help out.
Jeremy got interested in serving on the department back in 1984 when a hardware store burned down in downtown Elk River. That fire left a hole in downtown Elk River, which has since been filled with River’s Edge Commons Park.
Jeremy, then a teenager, watched several fire departments work together to battle that blaze.
He also remembers one of his first big structure fires being a big pole barn owned by D.H. Peterson. He was putting water on the fire when another firefighter on the department, realizing it was a lost cause, told Collins to save the water for explosions.
Both Jeremy and Phil remember a house fire on Baldwin Avenue. A rescue crew removed a man from a burning home. He was charred and appeared dead.
“He was dead but the ambulance people worked their magic,” Phil said. “To go from being down in the dumps (thinking someone perished in a fire) to the highest of highs when he was revived was something else.”
Phil reports with a degree of pride that Elk River has not had a fire-related fatality in the community or its fire district. That includes the Lions Park Apartment fire that could have been deadly.
Meanwhile, it’s likely there will be a third generation of Collins boys on the department someday.
Phil, the father of two potential recruits, hopes to still be on the department if the day ever comes that one or both of his boys join.
Any thoughts he might have of hanging up his firefighting boots before then are dashed when he thinks of the possibilities of working side by side with his children.
“I wish I could have been on the department when my dad was on it,” Phil said. “I would like to be there for my kids if they join.”