Thursday, January 27, 2022
Jacob Standke stands outside the burned hull of his rural Litomysl home on Dec. 1. His six-generation house was deemed a total loss.

Fire victim questions response time

“In an emergency situation when you call 911, you would think they would get the closest fire department there.” Jacob Standke, Rural fire victim

As a Steele County family rebuilds from a devastating house fire, they are left wondering if the damage from the blaze could have been less severe with a different fire response.

At the time of the Nov. 23 fire, Jacob Standke questioned why it took firefighters so long to respond to his blazing house near Litomysl in Somerset Township between Blooming Prairie and Owatonna. His rural home falls in the jurisdiction of the Blooming Prairie Fire Department. Standke’s home is 12.2 miles from the BP fire station, but only nine miles from the Owatonna station. 

Rice-Steele Dispatch Center received a 911 call from Standke at 4:56 a.m. and immediately dispatched BP Fire. According to 911 records, the first fire unit from BP arrived on the scene 20 minutes later, at 5:16 a.m. BP requested mutual aid from Ellendale, which arrived at 5:27 a.m., dispatch records show. 

While it’s unknown if a fire department three miles closer would have made a difference in this situation, Standke is left wondering if the damage may not have been as severe had Owatonna been the main fire department.

“In an emergency situation when you call 911, you would think they would get the closest fire department there,” Standke said just days after the fire. 

By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the garage and house were engulfed in flames and there was no hope of saving the six-generation house of the Standke family. Standke, his wife and young child escaped the burning house after smoke detectors awoke them.

“For 15-20 minutes, we just sat here with the garage on fire and there was nothing we could do,” Standke said. “It would have been nice to have the fire department here quicker,” he said, adding the house may not have been a total loss with a faster response.

Fire Chief Dean Naatz noted the Standke house is on the extreme north end of Blooming Prairie’s fire district. Just a quarter-mile further north is where the Owatonna fire district begins, according to Naatz. 

Naatz said a 20-minute response in the middle of the night is not uncommon for a rural fire department. “If you think about it, we’re not a full-time fire department,” he pointed out. “We’re responding from in this case at home in bed. Twenty minutes isn’t bad when you don’t have guys staying at the station.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Naatz said of the fire. He acknowledged that “it does seem like forever” when you’re in an emergency situation. 

The chief reminds rural residents it’s important for them to remember it takes the fire department time to respond to emergencies in the country. 

Blooming Prairie fire covers 187 sections in nine townships in four counties. 

Steele County Emergency Management Director Mike Johnson said fire response is always a sensitive issue for all involved. He said contrary to what people think, it isn’t always the closest fire department dispatched to calls. 

“You may not get the closest fire department,” Johnson said. “It depends on who the townships contract with.” 

Johnson explained individual township boards choose which department they want for fire coverage. For example, three departments cover different parts of Sommerset Township. 

Said Johnson: “In the rural areas, townships sign contracts to provide fire protection. It’s a decision they make as to who they want.”

Sometimes it boils down to finances. As an example, Johnson said, Owatonna Fire is more expensive than other area departments because it is a full-time department and has more expensive equipment. 

He offered an example of how complicated fire coverage can get when boundaries overlap. On the 16-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 218 between Owatonna and Blooming Prairie, three fire departments are responsible for certain sections of the roadway. Claremont Fire covers a small portion of U.S. 218 by Pratt, while BP covers south and Owatonna north of Pratt. 

Standke is in the process of rebuilding a house on a farm that has been in the family since the 1890s. 

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