When Edina Fire Marshal Tom Jenson was teaching at a Community Education babysitting class during the week of Aug. 20, he realized it was his last speaking engagement as an Edina employee after 31 years.
“It was hard. It just hit me. The tears started coming up,” Jenson recalled.
Jenson was having a tough time with a lot of “last time” moments on his last day before retirement on Aug. 31, including driving his city-owned vehicle to the fire station, where he was leaving the vehicle.
“I need a ride home. I hope someone will give me a ride,” he joked.
Chief Marty Sheerer, who began his Edina career as a volunteer firefighter with Jenson, said Jenson has been a great employee and will be missed around the department.
“He really cares and has passion to do a great job. He cares about the community, cares about people, cares about what he does and how he affects other people,” Sheerer said.
Jenson said he knew he wanted to become a firefighter in the late 1970s, but Edina didn’t have any positions open. His parents were friends with the Hennepin County sheriff and heard about the county’s Emergency Squad, comprised of people who had a medical background.
He began working nights with the squad, responding to emergencies around the county. He also began to take classes to become an emergency medical technician in 1978.
But then a chance to join the Edina Fire Department came along. He was one of 70 people who applied for 15 volunteer firefighter positions.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose,’” he said.
He was offered a position and began in May 1981, hoping that it would lead to a paid full-time firefighter position and eventually a paramedic position with the Edina Fire Department.
When a part-time on-call paramedic position opened, he decided to not take it at that point in his life and the dream faded, he said.
However, a full-time fire inspector position became available and no one was applying for it.
He pestered the fire chief about opening the application process to the volunteers. The chief did, probably to only appease him, he said.
Jenson was the only applicant and, despite knowing very little about fire codes, he was offered the job, beginning his first full-time paid position with the department in November 1998.
The next step, a promotion to fire marshal, came a few years later, although it wasn’t a career step Jenson was considering at the time. But when the fire marshal announced he was retiring in 2000, Jenson began to take stock in his life.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” he remembers. He’d been a business owner with his brother for nearly two decades while he volunteered for the fire department. He said he began to consider the fire marshal position in terms of his business experience – he would be supervising people and selling fire prevention rather than shoes.
Since he took over the position in 2000, he’s discovered the downside of the position – seeing the effects of the fatalities, injuries and destruction of possessions has on fire victims. The firefighters go home soon after the fire extinguished, but the fire marshal is there long afterward.
“You see that sadness and loss,” he said.
But the highlight of the past 12 years has been teaching and educating the Edina community to help prevent fires from occurring in the first place.
“Every one of fire deaths is about human behavior,” he said. Although no one can control things like lightening strikes, people can control their behavior when a fire occurs, he said.
He said he’ll miss the teaching aspect of his job during his retirement and hopes to continue to help out with education and fire codes.
He’ll also miss the being an employee of Edina while it undergoes a phase of changes and redevelopment.
“It’s a great team. We all work so well together. It makes it fun,” he said.
However, he’ll still be around Edina, where he plans to spend some time relaxing and completing house projects. Traveling is also on his to-do list for retirement.
One thing he’s counting on in retirement – phone calls from the new Edina fire marshal.
“I expect questions from the new fire marshal just like I called the old fire marshal and chief,” he said.
The fire department is planning to fill the position internally and Jenson has spent his last few days talking to interested firefighters about the position. He was surprised by how much interest there is for the position, he said, adding, “I’m honored people want to do what I do.”