Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services Chief Mike Hepfler will be retiring soon.
When I met Mike, the department was known as the Chippewa Falls Fire Department. The name was changed by former Chief Edward Mishefske to reflect an “all hazards” approach to the fire service.
As a state fire prevention coordinator, I have had the privilege of working with every city fire inspector beginning in 1986 forward, which has included many talented individuals. So I have spent some time with the city of Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services Department.
Of all the firefighters I have known and worked with, two individuals have had what I consider a blue-collar work ethic. That is meant with no disrespect nor does it imply a lack of education.
When he retired I was not writing this column but the first of the two individuals was Randy Misfeldt, who over the years I really have really grown to appreciate, and second is Mike Hepfler.
Mike is one of the last of the Chippewa Falls firefighters who began their careers about the time I did.
Mike started his working life in construction and homebuilding. That gave Mike a unique perspective on how construction affected fire behavior. With that knowledge, Mike could appreciate how modern construction has increased the danger to firefighters.
In fire departments the size of the city of Chippewa Falls, the fire chief cannot be just an administrator. That person has to have a hands-on working knowledge of both the equipment and the firefighters.
When the View burned early in 2019, the Chippewa Fire District requested a truck company from the city of Chippewa Falls. A truck company is what people used to call a ladder or aerial truck. Chippewa Falls brought out Truck 1 and with it came Chief Hepfler.
Mike stayed out in the cold all day with our firefighters until we released their truck.
He ran it from time to time and was up in the basket checking on the progress of the fire.
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I spoke with Chief Hepfler several times during the fire — both to get his impression of the progress of the fire and to take a moment to share the times we were on other calls together. There is nothing that is as funny than when a group of seasoned firefighters get together to tell fire stories.
Firefighting is perhaps the height of manual labor. While movies depict an ease of movement on the fireground; attacking a house fire can, and once in a while truly is, backbreaking work.
Firefighting and treating patients requires two different skill sets. Achieving those skill sets is not easy work. Mike Hepfler was always able to integrate those two skills and his professionalism showed.
Because fire departments are a semi-military organization with a vertical command structure (firefighter to chief), many people have difficulty working under those constraints. With fewer and fewer firefighters serving in the military, this can be a challenge to any fire chief.
Also transitioning from a paid on-call/volunteer fire department can be difficult for a newly hired career firefighter. Paid on-call/volunteer fire departments are often run at least as a partial democracy with promotions often done by an election; not so in the career fire service.
Mike Hepfler was able to bridge that gap with his new employees. I know sometimes it was challenging for him, but with Mike, you know where you stand. That is a compliment in this day and age.
Mike also was able to build on the work done by his predecessors to complete the new fire station.
The facility is a testament to the people who worked so hard for so many years to build it, and the building shows the pride of the citizens of Chippewa Falls and the Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services Department.
Mike is leaving the fire department in good hands.
Years ago, I asked former Eau Claire Fire Chief Ken Mikesell what he liked most about retirement. He said “for the first time in years I was able to go to bed and not worry about a phone call.”
Mike, best wishes to you, have a great and long retirement with no more phone calls.