Chief Randy Koehn


To paraphrase the U.S. Marine Corps recruitment slogan that was previously used, “We’re looking for a few good men (and women)” to join the fire department.

In the fire service, there have been many changes over time which have vastly improved firefighters’ ability to combat fire and respond to other emergencies. Improvements in technology, apparatus, equipment, communications, and training have skyrocketed. There’s no comparison between the firefighting capabilities of today to that of 50 years ago.

But not all change is good. Let’s look at the fire service here in Columbus from 50 years ago. You didn’t have to worry about having enough firefighters to respond to calls during the day. We found a group picture of the department members from around 1970. Of the 28 members that were in the photo, 26 of them worked in Columbus. Two of them worked in Madison.

Not only did those firefighters respond to fires, but prior to August 1977, the local ambulance service or “rescue squad” was operated by the fire department.

Not only were these firemen locally employed, there were even business owners who were volunteer firemen which is a rarity these days. These business owners included Earl Witthuhn from Earl’s Café, Tom Walker from Walker Lumber, Dick Hiney from Hiney Oil, Bob Tetzlaff from Tetzlaff’s Paint Store, Russell Andler from Andler’s Garage, Charlie Yelk from Yelk’s Machine Shop, Jim Boness from the Blackhawk Tap, and others.

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Fast forward to today. Society is much more mobile than it was 50 years ago. Working out of town as opposed to across town is no big deal anymore. With more people working out of town, it has an effect on the fire service. We no longer have over 90% of our firefighters available during the day. And it’s not just in Columbus. It’s safe to say that most small town volunteer fire departments in Wisconsin have the same problem.

Plus there is the generational factor to consider. Most of those that were firefighters 50 years ago were members of the Silent Generation, those born before the end of World War II. Their dedication and outstanding work ethic were deep rooted. This generation was followed by the Baby Boomers, Generation X, the Millennials, and now Generation Z. With each passing generation came different values and priorities. Life became more hectic as more opportunities evolved to occupy individuals’ time. “Volunteerism” doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be.

With these factors in mind, there is a need to find more volunteers to step up and join the fire department, especially those who are able to make daytime calls. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are some great employers in Columbus that allow their employees to leave for emergencies. At the top of the list is Lyco Manufacturing with five firefighter employees and Enerpac with three.

Are you ready, willing, and able to be the next Columbus firefighter? If you have an interest or have any questions, please contact us at the fire department or stop by Fireman’s Park on the evening of Aug. 6 for National Night Out. We’ll be there.

Randy Koehn serves as Columbus Fire Chief.

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