Public Safety

Firefighter trades rush of burning buildings for look at bigger picture

New assistant Cedar Rapids fire chief likes solving problems

CEDAR RAPIDS — Deciding to become a firefighter 20 years ago wasn’t just a way to give back to the community, Cedar Rapids Assistant Fire Chief Andy Olesen said. It also was in his blood.

Both his father and grandfather were volunteer firefighters in Greenfield in southwest Iowa, and Olesen, 41, said he has fond memories of the time he spent with the two men he looked up to.

“I can remember as a little boy they would take me to the station on Sundays, and I’d sit in the trucks and operate the lights and sirens,” he said.

It was those memories, along with a desire to help people, that led Olesen to firefighting.

Now, 20 years after he joined the Cedar Rapids Fire Department in 1999, Olesen is the department’s new assistant chief, putting him in charge of the day-to-day operations of the department’s emergency response programs. He was appointed to the position in July.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about my career recently and why I became a firefighter,” Olesen said. “The reason I got into the fire service — and one that I still draw a great deal of satisfaction from — is that I like helping to solve really challenging problems and projects. I liked doing it as a firefighter and as a fire captain pulling hose, and I liked doing it as a battalion chief, and now I know I’m going to like doing it as a manager and adviser to the battalion chief.”

When Olesen joined the fire department, he worked the line, pulling hose and running into burning buildings with the rest of the crew.

At that time, Olesen said, it was the challenge of extreme situations that his younger self found so exciting. Every day was different, that adrenaline rush of responding to emergencies and that tantalizing sense of danger as he entered a burning building.

He quickly became involved with the department’s special disciplines, including the Hazardous Materials Response Team and Special Operations Team. He also joined the Iowa Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team, a unit that was put together after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Right after those attacks, Olesen said, “a ton of resources were poured into local fire departments for equipment and training with the goal of better preparing emergency responders to respond to large-scale urban disasters.”

“At that time, we had limited resources when it came to larger disasters,” he said. “We didn’t have the capability to conduct the large-area searches or urban searches that might be needed after, say, a large tornado event or some other kind of disaster where the destruction could be scattered across a wide area and people could need to be rescued.”

So, Olesen said, he volunteered the Cedar Rapids department to be a leading agency in forming an urban search and rescue team.

“And that changed the trajectory for many folks around my age and at my experience level,” he said. “There were suddenly more opportunities to train in specialized fields and more opportunities to really look at and evaluate our response to disasters — what did we need to improve? What equipment do we need to better that response? What do we need to do to ensure a quick and quality response?”

It was then that Olesen realized he not only enjoyed the rush of a rescue but also the behind-the-scenes operations of the department.

“I really enjoyed doing the work of the fire department — responding to calls, putting out fires, doing the things that people expect of the fire department — I drew a lot of satisfaction from that work,” he said. “But I also enjoy looking at the bigger picture — how we are using our resources and are we doing so in a way that ensures our response to our third or 10th call is as high a quality as our response to our first.”

In his new job, Olesen said he will first focus on marshaling the department’s resources to best meet the community’s needs and to ensure the department is able to keep up with a steadily increasing number of calls and continuing expansion of duties.

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“I do miss being on the line — you build strong relationships and bond with those co-workers,” he said. “Facing challenges together creates strong bonds, and I will miss the brotherhood and the camaraderie and the daily interaction with the public. But I don’t see it as a trade-off. Both roles are rewarding, just in different ways.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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