Countless school children dream of becoming a firefighter, of rushing down a pole, driving a gleaming red fire engine, and bursting into burning houses, axe in hand, to save families and their dogs, too. Kindergarteners do not dream of inspecting buildings for fire code compliance, looking over sprinkler system plans, or sifting through cold ashes to identify the cause of a blaze. For years, soon-to-retire Winona Fire Marshal and Assistant Fire Chief Jim Multhaup has done all the things school children do not dream about, but that keep them safe nonetheless.
Axes and hoses are the "glamorous side" of the fire department, "but you can't [over] stress the importance of fire prevention," said Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle. "You never get a pat on the back as Fire Marshal, but you save more lives and property than a firefighter entering a burning building," said former Winona Fire Chief Ed Krall, paraphrasing the founding father of American firefighting, Benjamin Franklin.
As Fire Marshal, Multhaup spends much of his time poring over shelves heavily loaded with three-ring binders full of fire code, fielding calls from architects, filing inspection paperwork, and visiting non-burning buildings. "That's not where the glory is," he agreed. "But I believe that [fire prevention] is fighting fires everyday."
Fire marshals would be hard-pressed to prove that a given house did not catch fire because of the work they do, but since the rise of modern fire prevention, structural fires nationwide, and in Winona, have decreased, Multhaup said. "I've come to believe that fire prevention works. I think it's the single most important thing a fire department can be involved with," he said. Multhaup "lives and eats fire prevention and the city has benefited from it," Bittle commented.
Fire prevention is just one of Multhaup's many hats. He has also headed the department's public outreach efforts, developing curriculum for local fifth-grade "Junior Firefighters," and he has overseen maintenance and upkeep for the department's numerous, complex, and expensive equipment and vehicles. Multhaup has conducted fire extinguisher trainings at 5 a.m. or late at night for second and third shift workers at local factories. He has also investigated fires to determine whether they were accidents or arson, as he did with the downtown fire last fall, working with federal and state inspectors and various private insurance companies and giving information to news crews from across the state. He and another assistant chief take over command in absence of the fire chief. "There are a lot of things the public doesn't see that Jim does," Krall said.
"We have some awfully big shoes to fill," commented Bittle. The city is currently considering internal applicants and expects to announce Multhaup's replacement soon. Multhaup and the replacement will have a busy April, teaching and learning the details of the multifarious activities of job. "The city of Winona is really losing a special city employee," Bittle said, adding that it will take some time to replace Multhaup's experience.
A Winona boy, Multhaup joined the department in 1980 and worked his way up the ranks for the last 34 years. Apparently, he has been sporting his characteristic mustache since his days as a pump operator. Multhaup has an earnest manner, and it is easy to see that he truly cares about his job.
"It was a hard decision," he said of retiring. "It's been a pretty large part of my life." He continued, "Thirty-four years — it's amazing how fast that went." He added, "People ask if I'm counting the days or getting anxious. My answer is absolutely not. I've got one month left, but it might as well be tomorrow," given how quickly it will go.
Multhaup "takes his job very seriously," said Captain Larry Vogen. "He's passionate about it," agreed firefighter Mark Vieth. "And he's very particular about how it gets it done," Vogen added.
Multhaup is particular. A fire marshal has to be "meticulous and detail-oriented," Krall stated. Multhaup knows the importance of his job, too. He has seen tragic fires. His job matters, he said, because he has a responsibility to keep people safe. "The worst in my memory will always be the ones with injuries or fire deaths," he said of fires over his career. "Buildings can be replaced, materials can be replaced, but people's lives can't," he continued. "That's what we're trying to prevent."
Multhaup has a great mind for mechanics, but he said he valued the human side of his job, the people he met through inspections, and being a "salesman" for the importance of following fire code when talking with property owners rather than a heavy-handed regulator.
While most property owners are very good about asking for advice about the fire code before they make changes, sometimes the fire marshal can be the "bad guy," Multhaup said.
"I've seen Jim use a tremendous amount of self-restraint" in conversations with architects and engineers who were bucking the fire code, Krall said. Conversely, Multhaup "never hesitated to tell me if he thought I was wrong, which I respected," Krall commented. "Usually he was right."
Camaraderie runs deep at the fire house. Bittle said he turned to the long-time assistant chief for advice as he took over the reins from Krall last year. For the most part, Multhaup succeeded in "keeping me out of trouble," Bittle said with a smile.
Multhaup will retire at the end of April. He would love to solve one more arson before he retires. In the early morning hours of January 30, a Latsch Island boathouse was intentionally burned, he reported. The department is seeking tips via the local Crime Stopper Hotline, 507-457-6350, or via the Minnesota Arson Hotline, 800-723-2020. Rewards are available and callers may remain anonymous.