by ADAM GRUENEWALD
There is a changing of the guard at Hamburg Fire Department as Justin Buckentin has taken over for longtime fire chief Brad Droege.
Droege, who has served on the department for 35.5 years including 28 as an officer, will remain on the department as chief three.
Droege first took over as fire chief of the 27-member department 19 years ago, replacing Craig Glander.
A 57-year-old Hamburg native, Droege said he got interested in the department with his desire to help people.
“I came across accidents and other incidents and they were looking for help so I just thought it was a good thing to do,” he said.
That desire added to his responsibilities as he has spent 20 years working for Ridgeview Medical Ambulance Service and joined the EMT program 33 years ago.
“Some guys on the fire department had gone through it and I felt an interest in it,” he said.
In addition, Droege works as supervisor of William Mueller and Sons in Hamburg, the family business.
His dad George, who passed away in 2000, was also a member of the department. The family tradition has continued as Droege’s daughter, Brenda Jurek, is a 13-year member of the department as well.
“It’s good to have a family member on and it’s also good to have women on the fire department,” he said.
Droege’s wife Barb and son Brian also work for William Mueller and Sons and Droege understands his son’s desire to not join the department.
“He always told me he was retired because we took him to all the fire department functions,” joked Droege.
That family support system has enabled Droege to maintain his responsibilities.
While Droege was named a Minnesota Fire Officer of the Year in 2009, he said the biggest honor comes from being able to help people.
“Just being able to help save people’s lives and property, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I don’t like all the glam and glory. I just like saving and helping people.”
The biggest fire he recalls was about 25 years ago which destroyed a barn and was supported by eight fire departments.
“It was 40 below windchill and we were freezing up,” he said.
As the longest serving member on the department, Droege said he has seen significant changes in call volume and gear, including specialized equipment such as autopulses, air monitoring and rescue equipment.
“Turnout gear has gotten way better,” he said. “When I started we got boots and a jacket and no bunker pants or anything like that.”
Additionally, training requirements have changed significantly in his time as fire chief.
“There is way more enhanced training and more hands-on training,” he said. “When I first started we didn’t even have training in the summer.”
Now though he is passing some of those responsibilities to Buckentin, giving Droege a little more free time to spend with his family including on a lake home near Richmond, Minn.
“It was time to let somebody else be in there,” he said.
Buckentin, a lifelong Hamburg resident and 1998 Central High School graduate, is eager to take over as fire chief.
Buckentin, 34, first joined the department 15 years ago with a desire to help people and taking nod from his dad, Kerry.
“I was around it and I saw him help people,” he said. “It is kind of nice and it gives you a good feeling. It’s rewarding.”
The reality of the position hit home for Buckentin when his dad, Kerry, a 24-year member of the department passed away on Aug. 1, 2001, after a 4-wheeler accident on the family farm where Buckentin lives now.
Buckentin was the first responder on the scene because his dad had called him that day telling him the cows were out.
Buckentin recalled his pager went off when he arrived and he soon found his dad pinned under a 4-wheeler which had rolled over.
“It definitely stays with you,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, any of us small town volunteers. That’s the one thing when you do this you always are running into people you know. The smaller the town the more you know people… The one thing as first responders when you’re there you end up with the images that are stuck with you whether you like it or not.”
The death was hard for not only the family but the department as well as Kerry, a 12-year assistant chief, was instrumental in training the younger members.
“He was the one of the ones that basically trained us all,” said Buckentin. “I’d go to him for stuff more frequently than others. He taught me how to run an engine.”
While Kerry was influential, Buckentin said he was never forced into joining the department.
“He never pushed me into anything,” he said, recalling his dad simply offered the opportunity for him and his three sisters, April Kamps, Kassie Arndt and Ashley Dammann.
Buckentin currently works for the public works department of the City of Minnetonka and he and his wife, Amy, have three kids, Hailey, 9, Lacey, 6, and Callie, 5.
As a five-year officer, Buckentin said he has the support of the other members of the fire department.
“A few of them talked me into it,” he said. “It came down to the other firefighters asking me to do it.”
Recognizing the shift in responsibilities, Justin said he hopes that support doesn’t change.
“Being one of them to being the boss, for my personality that’s going to be hard,” he said. “Before a lot of them came to me with stuff and I hope they still keep coming and don’t think they can’t talk to me anymore.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at firstname.lastname@example.org.