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Brainerd's state fire investigator retires his badge after serving 3 decades: Mark Germain no longer on call

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In his rural Nisswa home in January, retired state fire marshal deputy Mark Germain holds a burned phone recovered from a fire. The phone is illustrative of why it's important to stay low to the ground, Germain said, as the cord was undamaged in comparison. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 5
The Brainerd Dispatch front page on Feb. 26, 1987, depicts the devastation as an early morning fire destroyed six businesses and left 35 people without homes. 3 / 5
Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms search through the charred remains of the Planned Parenthood office in Brainerd Aug. 10, 1994. An early-morning fire that destroyed the clinic and adjacent businesses was suspicious. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo4 / 5
Firefighters work on a massive fire in downtown Brainerd. The fire was later attributed to arson. This photo by Steve Kohls was reprinted in a Feb. 16, 1999, Dispatch special section. 5 / 5

NISSWA—Mark Germain spent many nights sleeping in his vehicle, about half his life in ashes and has seen more tragedies than anyone would want to endure.

Germain, hired as the Brainerd area deputy with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office in 1989 after already having close to 10 years of fire service experience under his belt, has retired.

Germain—who was on call 24/7 and had to be ready to go to work at a moment's notice—is now learning a slower-paced life. The rural Nisswa resident investigated his last fire, a fourplex destroyed Nov. 16 on the 200 block of First Street Northwest in Crosby. The fire destroyed the building and displaced a dozen people days before Thanksgiving. After Germain's investigation, the cause was listed as undetermined.

Germain didn't want to guess how many fires he has investigated in his 30 years—the list is just too long. However, the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office began keeping statistics in 2005 and Germain investigated 611 cases from 2005 to 2018, which calculates to an average of 43 cases a year. He also averaged about 95 consultations. A consult is when the investigator is contacted for an opinion or information, not one physically investigated.

How it all started

Germain's fire service career began in 1982 while he was living in Shoreview. He lived across the street from one of the Lake Johanna Fire Department fire stations. Germain said the fire station was a private entity and the group of firefighters owned the station and all the equipment. One night, Germain heard a bunch of commotion. He saw the emergency lights and sirens from the fire trucks going and all the garage bays of the station were open.

"I was mesmerized by it all," Germain said in an interview at his rural Nisswa home. "The next day I went across the street to talk to the guy. You could say one thing led to another and I joined the department.

"I made a lot of calls as I lived across the street from the fire station."

Germain started working as a technician. He took classes in firefighting and ones focused on being an engineer. He wanted to learn how the fire trucks and the equipment worked. He became an engineer with the service, operating the fire trucks, and in subsequent years moved up the chain of command to station manager, then captain and finally district chief. He spent nine years with the Lake Johanna fire service.

"Part of the duty of a captain was to figure out how fires started," Germain said, so he began taking arson classes through the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

While still with Lake Johanna, Germain took a fire test in St. Paul as he wanted to be in the fire service full time. He placed 65th on the testing list, which was a three-year list. Once he completed the test there was a hiring freeze while a group sued the city of St. Paul. Germain decided then to take the civil service test, which he passed, and he applied for a job as a residential inspector with the state fire marshal's office. He was hired in 1989.

Work with Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office

Part of Germain's job when first hired was to inspect hotels, motels and resorts primarily in the Twin Cities metro area, making sure the structures were up to fire code standards. For the first 18 months, Germain did two jobs, working for the state and staying with the Lake Johanna Fire Department.

Soon after his hire, Germain was asked to temporarily fill in as a fire inspector while the state was short-staffed. The supervisor then was Brainerd resident Dave Bahma.

"He kept sending me up north to do inspections," Germain said. Eventually, Germain moved his family to Baxter in July 1991. Germain continued to take more arson investigation classes and in 1992 became certified as a fire investigator and a full-time fire inspector. Even though Germain primarily was the Brainerd deputy fire investigator, he could be sent to any fire across the state. His main focus area, however, was investigations in Crow Wing County and eight surrounding counties, which included the cities of Princeton, Cass Lake and Wadena, to as distant as Two Harbors, Grand Marais and Pipestone. There are 11 fire investigators in the state and a supervisor.

"At a moment's notice, I could be gone," Germain said of calls. "The phone can ring at any time and you are subject to call back. Usually fires happened on the weekends and during the overnight."

The biggest challenge of the job was scheduling family time and work.

"You are never really off of work," Germain said. "You really need an understanding with your family. There has been some people where this job didn't work for them. ... I couldn't tell you how many times we were out to dinner or out to the movies and then had to just leave so I could go to work.

"I suppose you could not answer the phone or try to get someone else to cover, but if you're available and not sick or dead, why not go? If you do, it just takes up another guy's time and he could be tied up, too, and it would take him longer to get here. We all respect each other and we don't want to take advantage of each other."

Germain and his wife, Ann, have always lived their life with a back-up plan, especially when their two boys—Mark and Mike—were little. During this time period, his wife also was on call on certain days for her job. When she was on call, they had to have a plan so if they both had to go to work they had someone to watch their children.

"We had neighbors to help us out and they were great," Germain said. "We couldn't have done it without them."

Ann Germain said there were times her husband was doing fire investigations and would be gone for days, including one year for four days over Christmas.

Germain said times have changed through his career, and were harder earlier on with balancing work and family. He said the training and the fire equipment was not as good as it is today. Today more buildings are being saved and more of the structure is left behind for him to investigate.

"The best part of my job has been dealing with people," Germain said of the law enforcement officers and firefighters. "I've made a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle. They've made my life easier. In this area we are blessed with having good fire and police departments. I hear stories from my counterparts and they don't have it as fortunate as I did here. ... Dave Bahma did a good job getting the ball rolling with the fire and police departments. ... I can't say enough about them, they are excellent people."

Germain also was a teacher in his own right, helping other fire chiefs in more rural areas on fire tactics in extinguishing fires. He also taught children about fire safety.

Toughest part of job—fire fatalities

The toughest part of the job were the fire deaths, especially children.

"These were always the toughest calls to go on," Germain said. "They are the ones you will never forget."

Early on in Germain's career, there was a fire at a home off of Highland Scenic Road and Eagle Drive South in Baxter, situated between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office and Brainerd Public Utilities, where a boy died.

"I was searching the house with the fire department after the fire was out and there was a young child found and he looked like my son at that time," Germain said. "The images of him, I can still picture them today."

Another house fire Germain will never forget was January 2006 in Ideal Township. A father, Stephen Stork, and his three daughters—ages 17, 24 and 26—perished in a fire. The cause of the fire was an improperly used wood stove and the smoke detectors were disabled.

Germain said the mom was working nights when the fire started. The children were trying to get out of the house.

"You can never prepare yourself for something like this because everyone is different," Germain said of fire fatalities. "You don't know where you are going to find them or what you will see or how you will handle that situation. ... When you're in that house and you hear a family member come up and scream and have to restrain them from going into the house, I can't express how difficult a situation it is.

"This fire impacted the fire department. ... There were cars parked there so we knew there were people inside the house. We had (the 911) dispatchers run the address and we learned there were six people who live at the house. That was a tough fire and it didn't have to happen."

Germain also recalled a house fire in Mille Lacs County where the father ran back into the house to save his child and they both never came out. He said there also was a Remer family who experienced two different house fires. Germain said the Remer couple were attending their brother's funeral, as he had died in a fire. And during the funeral, their home was destroyed by fire.

"You can't help but feel for these people," Germain said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Germain also has saved lives. One he will never forget was in 1986-87, when he was a firefighter at Lake Johanna.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Germain said. "I got out of the truck, pulled the hose and ran to the front door and a woman screamed her son was inside. I asked her where he was and she said in the basement. Me and my back-up went in and ... the fire was on the sofa and we put it out (but) couldn't see. I started a hand search for this person and flipped a bed over and he was looking at me with his eyes open. He was not breathing. He was like 6-feet, 3-inches and over 200 pounds.

"He was so heavy and limplike. I stood him up and lifted him from his thighs, he bumped me as I walked and ... we got into the kitchen to go out the front door and two other firefighters were coming in and I literally dropped to my knees and they brought him out."

Germain said the paramedics got a pulse and he was transported to the hospital.

"That was a traumatic incident to be involved in," Germain said. "His brother came and thanked us for saving his brother. ... The hospital staff kept him alive for a day."

Arsons

Germain investigated a fair share of arsons over his career.

A devastating fire Germain investigated was the 1991 fire that destroyed a building on the corner of Front and South Seventh streets. The building was owned by Dave Pueringer and consisted of eight businesses and apartment units, and more than 30 people were left without homes. According to the Crow Wing County Historical Society, flames shot out of the building, some reaching 40 feet in the area. The Brainerd fire chief at the time was Ron Johnson.

Germain said he was able to prove it was arson and the suspect went to prison.

He said arson cases can be tough, because even though a fire is suspicious, investigators cannot always prove the fire was arson.

"You want to have closure, but sometimes you don't get it," he said.

A suspicious fire Germain was unable to prove as arson was the 1994 fire that destroyed the Planned Parenthood building in Brainerd.

Germain said an investigator needs more than one clue to get a case to court. When sifting through the ashes of a building, there are several things Germain will look for to find clues that a fire was intentionally set. Clues may include how the burn pattern looks, fires in multiple rooms, damage to an electrical fuse box and around it, the smell of gasoline or gasoline containers left on scene.

An investigator must not only have interrogation skills, they must have knowledge of fire science to be able to investigate a fire scene.

A presidential encounter

Germain not only responded to hundreds of fires at homes, restaurants and other structures over his career to determine the cause of the fire, but he also did inspections to make sure the buildings are up to fire code. One fire inspection he did in the early '90s he will never forget. He inspected the Hyatt Hotel in Minneapolis to get it ready for a visit from President George H.W. Bush.

Germain said he worked with Bush's Secret Service staff who would direct him on how they needed the accesses in and out of the hotel to be. Accesses were changed structurally and had to meet fire codes—all of which had to be done in a few days.

Germain said it was quite the sight as the entire hotel was booked just for the president and his staff. The president took the top floor, another floor contained all the services needed, such as doctors, hairdressers and other service staff, another floor contained all the computer hardware equipment, and another floor hosted the Secret Service staff.

"The elevators were on lock down and they flew in their own generators," Germain said. "I never got to meet the president but I was in the same room with him. I got a pin with his name on it. It was a pretty cool experience. And once they left we had to change everything back to how it was."

Retirement

Germain has no immediate plans for his retirement, but to spend time with his family. Germain and Ann have two sons, two grandsons and a Labrador retriever Zoey. Germain also has three daughters and four grandchildren from his first marriage.

What others had to say about Germain

• Bruce West, a Minnesota state fire marshal, said in an email: "Being a fire investigator is a difficult but important job that Mark approached with passion and dedication. He did an outstanding job working with law enforcement and fire officials in central Minnesota, while finding answers for families who were devastated by the carnage a fire brings with it. Mark will be missed and we wish him well in retirement."

• Jim Lammatteo, State Fire Marshal division chief investigator, stated: "Mark has responded to hundreds of calls during his career, leaving family events, getting out of a warm bed on a cold night, and missing holidays with his loved ones. Mark has played an important role in his community, whether it be by working hard to bring an arson case to prosecution or helping a victim of an accidental fire find closure by making sure insurance companies pay their clients in a timely fashion. Mark has been a valuable member of our team and will be sorely missed."

• Former Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl said, "He is a good buddy of mine and I love him to death and he has done a great job for this community. What a great resource to have him here. Everyone says you miss the work, maybe you do miss some of it but you certainly miss the people."

• Former Brainerd Fire Chief Kevin Stunek said, "I've known him for many years before I even was the fire chief. Mark was always very professional, thorough and always available. If I was on a call and I saw a red flag or if something wasn't right I could call Mark night or day. I would run a couple things by him ... before making a decision on whether he came or not. It was handy that he lived in the area.

"He was well-respected from across the state. Bottom line is he is a good friend and I wish him and his wife the best."