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Tom Inman: 30 years a firefighter

By Staff | Mar 12, 2011

Tom and Chris Inman share a lot of things — community involvement, Inman Electric and Radio Shack — and they’re both dedicated members of the Estherville Fire Department. EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

Firefighting runs deep in the Inman family.

Tom Inman’s father-in-law, Fred Albers, was a firefighter in Swea City and his brother-in-law Phil Albers still is. Tom’s brother Richard is a volunteer firefighter in North Mankato, Minn., and Tom’s son Chris will notch three years under his belt as a firefighter for the Estherville Fire Department in June.

And Tom?

Well, Tom, a driver and pumper operator for the department, will be honored by the Estherville Fire Department at its annual meeting tonight at the VFW for his 30 years of service as a firefighter.

Firefighting, of course, is a fraternity, a fraternity of danger, of humor, of pathos. When a fireman dies, a fire department grieves. That’s just how fire departments are.

Tom joined that fraternity at the tender age of 16 when he and his father and six other volunteers formed the first EMT-A squad in West Bend. Tom took his EMT classes in 1972 and rode ambulances for three years – all while in high school.

When he moved from West Bend for Estherville to work for Don Meyer Electric, Meyer, then assistant fire chief, asked Tom if he would like to join the department. Tom said yes, and he’s been doing it ever since.

At that time, there was a waiting list.

“I don’t think people were as busy,” Tom explained, saying being a firefighter takes time. It isn’t all fighting fires. Firefighters also respond to car accidents and, like 1993, help sandbag in time of flood. And then there’s the training and meeting nights.

Alan Hanson is the only other original member of the Estherville Fire Department from when Tom joined that’s still serving.

Over the years, Tom has seen a lot of changes in training. When he first signed on, there was a small amount of in-house training. Since there, training is far better and with constant updates on the science of fire safety, pumper operations and chemicals – all of which make a firefighter’s job far safer.

“We know so much more about what we could be getting into,” Tom said.

Among the most memorable fires was one at Eldon Fain’s home on North 13th.

“It was so miserable,” Inman said. The firefighters would fight the fire until they were frozen solid and then walked over to thaw out in an insurance office in what is now Four Seasons Floral & Greenhouse. There they would have a quick cup of coffee and a little food until they thawed out enough to go back and fight the fire again.

Another bad fire was at John Morrell’s. Over three days, Inman spent 26 hours fighting the fire.

Another bad fire was American Lumber where Inman drove the first truck and sustained an injury and was hospitalized.

There was also a fire at the Pepsi distribution center in 1983 – the day after Inman’s first son was born.

He responded to a call and saw a vehicle outside. That told him the father and son were still trapped inside but as the fire raged out of control all they could do was stand by helplessly and pray.

More than once, he helped extricate from vehicles people who did not live. “Unfortunately in a small town we know these people,” Inman said.

He’s the department historian, too, with a plethora of antique photos of fires. There’s even a fire hydrant at the front door of Radio Shack, his business on South Sixth Street.

According to Inman, the Estherville Fire & Rescue Co. No. 1 formed in 1884. Before that, a bucket brigade was all that stood between the wooden false-fronted buildings of Estherville and conflagration.

The department bought its first truck in 1910. Things have improved greatly since then.

The department has 23 members. While department members must live within city limits, Inman said many work outside town, making it a struggle sometimes to fill all the trucks during the day. “That’s just a problem of the times,” he said. Since he has his own business, though, Inman has been able to make a large percentage of the calls during his 30 years with the department.

It takes a lot of dedication to be a firefighter. And since it takes a lot of money and time to train someone, Inman said the department would like prospective firefighters to stay on for a while. Two women have served on the department while Inman was there.

The Firemen’s Association held a pancake breakfast this past Sunday to help raise money for bunker gear and other department equipment. At a cost of $2,000 to outfit one firefighter alone, it’s hard for any department to meet the cost.

And, of course, there’s the endless layers of regulation, ranging from local to state to federal that every department has to meet.

But it’s been a great experience – and he doesn’t regret a bit all those training and meeting nights.

“I still enjoy it,” Inman said. “I enjoy the guys. I’ve made some really good friends over the years.”