Young Mike Kruse sensed an ulterior motive when his father, a Northfield firefighter, told him the department had an opening for someone to join the crew, but they had to live in the firehouse.
“ ‘They’re looking for some sleepers, if you want to put your name in,’ ” Kruse recalled his father saying. “I thought he was trying to kick me out of the house.”
Kruse responded to the nudge and was soon hired on May 7, 1973, at the earliest possible age of 21.
Exactly 47 years from the day he was hired, the 68-year-old Kruse will bed down for the last time in the cozy, spartan setting on the second floor above the gleaming red pumper truck that he’s operated on calls all around Northfield and surrounding communities.
There have been longer-serving firefighters who prefer to call a house their home. Last summer in Excelsior, for example, the suburban Minneapolis department honored David Hoo for his 50 years of service.
But Kruse sleeping above the job on a permanent basis since the early 1970s is exceptional.
These days, according to Mark Rosenblum, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association, sleepers for the most part take brief overnight stints and are most commonly found in departments serving smaller communities.
“Mankato has a program where they will hire college students to live at their fire station while going to college and train them to fight fires,” he said.
“For this Northfield firefighter” to last that long, Rosenblum said, “it’s pretty unique.”
Nationally, Tim Burn of the International Association of Fire Fighters based in Washington, D.C., said he did a quick survey within his organization about Kruse’s sleeper longevity, and “anecdotally, it seems very rare and unheard of. He sounds like an amazing person.”
When Kruse moved into the firehouse, he was one of six firefighters residing in quarters that to this day include a private room for each resident — no couples or families allowed — and common kitchen, laundry, television and dining areas. There are separate bathrooms and showers for men and women.
The number of firefighters residing above it all next to the Cannon River has fluctuated over the years, and Kruse’s departure will leave one firefighter there to fulfill the obligations required to live there: keep the trucks and floor clean, haul out the trash and tend to any other housekeeping when not on a call.
“That’s kind of what our rent is” as paid on-call firefighters, Kruse said.
Anytime the fire alarm sounds, Kruse is there to slide down the 18-foot-long fire pole, crank up his pumper truck and coordinate the response to the scene.
“I don’t drink or anything,” said Kruse, explaining one of the traits that make him a good fit for his rapid-response responsibilities. “It gets the trucks out sooner, and that helps with [the department’s] insurance rating.”
Fire Chief Gerry Franek said he counts on Kruse to “coordinate the route we are going to take, and that gives me time for planning. It saves us valuable time.”
Franek, who joined the department in 1985, said Kruse “is a heck of a good pump operator and a very good EMT as well.”
Kruse’s future home could not be more opposite than where he’s lived these past many decades: 180 acres of vacation property east of Lake Mille Lacs. “It’s quite a difference, for sure,” he said.
Throughout his entire time living at the firehouse, other than during his time as a weekend warrior for the Army National Guard and while the firehouse was recently remodeled, Kruse never seriously considered moving out, even when romance was in the air.
“I never married,” he said. “I got engaged a couple of times, but things didn’t turn out. If I wasn’t on the Fire Department, I would have been married for sure.”
That was fine with Kruse’s father, Clint, who retired from the Fire Department after 23 years and died 11 months ago at age 89 as a grandfather and great-grandfather.
“He knew that I enjoyed that,” Kruse said of his choice to live the single firefighter life. “He thought it was great that it kept me around town. … And I followed in his footsteps.”
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482