Bickel steps down as fire chief after 30 years

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New McGregor Hook and Ladder No. 1 fire chief Jerry Thornton (left) and retiring chief Dan Bickel pose in front of the department’s new truck. The truck is named “Richard” in honor of former fireman Rick Walters, who bequeathed the department $50,000 to go toward the purchase of a new truck when he passed away. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Dan Bickel stepped down as  the fire chief of McGregor Hook and Ladder No. 1 earlier this month after holding the post for 30 years.

Bickel said the firemen have held an election once each year, in February, since the department’s inception over 140 years ago. This year, Jerry Thornton, who’s been assistant chief for 27 years, was elected chief. Tom Sauer was named assistant chief, while Trampus Thornton will be the foreman and Tom McElwaine the assistant foreman. Tom Luber was named the training officer and Rory Lindner the assistant training officer. The secretary/treasurer will be Kent Pfeiffer.

“The chief and assistant chief usually stay pretty static over the years,” Bickel said, “so this is a dramatic change.”

Bickel said he’ll remain with the department, but thought it was time to pass the reins to someone younger.

“There’s a time for everything,” he said. “There are new ways of doing things and new trainings coming on the scene every day. They’ve done things my way for a long time. I’m still working full-time, so I thought it was time for someone younger with new ideas.”

Choosing Thornton was the logical choice, Bickel added. 

“I didn’t know how the men would be,” Thornton noted of the vote, joking that “they got younger, but not much younger.”

Bickel said he first joined the department 41 years ago, in Feb. 1974.

“I was born and raised here and felt I wanted to do something to contribute to the community,” he said. “I was put in as assistant chief for Bob Hammel. When he retired, I moved up, and they kept me all these years.”

Over the years, Bickel said there have been some remarkable changes at the department, mainly in communication. He recalled, when he first started, there were no radios, so firemen had no communication once they left the fire house. Now, they all have radios, pagers and cell phones to remain connected.

When he started, Bickel said there were only three trucks. Now, McGregor Hook and Ladder has seven.

One thing that has never wavered, though, he said, is the consistent support of the communities, whether through the annual fund drive or getting volunteer members. Bickel said the department has also been blessed with supportive local governments.

“Everyone said it would never work,” he said of the merger between Marquette and McGregor, “but it’s worked just fine. It took awhile to work out the details, but it’s worked well. We have good firemen from both communities.”

McGregor Hook and Ladder makes 20 to 30 calls each year for everything from fires, accidents and lost people to floods and issues with tow boats and grain elevators, Bickel said.

His firefighting career hasn’t come without its fair share of tragedies, said Bickel, noting drownings and car accident fatalities. He said the McGregor Electronics fire was the biggest he’s ever helped fight, while last year’s fire in Marquette was the hottest.

“McGregor Electronics was a big fire, but there weren’t buildings in close proximity like in Marquette,” he explained. “In Marquette, it was hot, and that building burned incredibly fast. The crew in the street had to stand their ground. It was a real tragedy because they lost so much.”

However, there have been positive outcomes too.

“We’ve saved a bunch of houses,” he said, recalling once taking a lady out of a second story window. “There was a fire on the lower block of Main Street [in McGregor] we were able to get at and put out quickly.”

“We’ve never failed to show up,” he continued. Sometimes it takes awhile, and sometimes they have to call for mutual aid, but they get there. “If we don’t do it, who will? If there’s a job someone can’t handle, we get it, and we can usually figure out something.”

Bickel said he’s enjoyed working with his fellow firefighters over the years. McGregor Hook and Ladder currently has 28 volunteers.

“It’s a really good crew that serves the communities well. I’m very proud of them,” he said, adding that, while being fire chief was a time-consuming commitment, he was glad to do it. “I’m very privileged to have led this group for so long.”

Moving forward, Bickel said locals are safe in Thornton’s hands.

“We’ve worked together for years and we pretty much agree on most things,” he said. “It’s a good choice. I have a lot of time invested, but there are well-trained, capable guys like him that make stepping down easier.”

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