CHIPPEWA FALLS — When Mike Hepfler became Chippewa Falls EMS/fire chief in April 2014, one of his top goals was obtaining a new fire station that met the needs of the department. The existing station, connected to City Hall, opened in 1952.
“I had my list of goals that I wanted to accomplish in my three to five years (as chief),” Hepfler said. “I started talking to council members and expressed my concerns about replacing the building.”
The Chippewa Falls City Council approved the $5 million project in spring 2015. Construction began in May 2016, and the new station opened in spring 2017.
Hepfler, 60, announced this week he plans to retire in mid-July, after more than 30 years working in the city’s fire and emergency medical services agency. Battalion Chief Lee Douglas will be promoted to take his place.
As chief, Hepfler oversees a department of 26 firefighter/EMTs and one office worker. All the firefighters except the chief and fire inspector work three 24-hour shifts over a nine-day work cycle.
“These last five years have been great,” he said. “I looked forward to the challenge.”
Hepfler and his wife, Karen, have four children and seven grandchildren, who all live in the area.
“My family has been pushing me (to retire) for a couple of years,” he said. “I’m in good health. The time I couldn’t spend with my kids, I’ll get to spend ... with my grandkids.”
Hepfler was instrumental in getting the new station approved, and worked on each phase of the design.
“We’d take trips. I’d get a list of new fire stations and tour them and ask them the best thing and worst thing about each of them,” Hepfler said.
His trips included stops in Ashland, Verona, Merrill and Marshfield.
Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman praised Hepfler for his work in developing the station.
“Mike met with the initial contractors, he met with the search firm, he toured other fire stations, and he helped with the design,” Hoffman said. “He was quite instrumental; he showed us what we needed.”
The station features six large vehicle bays, with a 22-foot ceiling and 14-foot-tall doors. It has far more room than the old downtown headquarters, and it allowed for all equipment to be stored inside. The interior also features six private dorm rooms for firefighters, lockers for all employees to store personal belongings, an exercise room, kitchen and day room. At the old station, all firefighters slept in one large dorm room-style space, with minimal privacy.
The building, located at 1301 Chippewa Crossing Boulevard, sits on a three-acre parcel, with plenty of additional space outside for possible expansion.
Hoffman described Hepfler as an energetic guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.
“Mike has been excellent to work with,” the mayor said. “He’s well-respected by other staff and department heads.”
Hepfler is a Chippewa Falls native, and he graduated from McDonell Central High School in 1977. He started with the Fire Department in 1985 as a reserve firefighter. He joined full time in 1989. He was the city’s fire inspector from October 1996 to December 1997, was promoted to battalion chief in 2012 and became chief in 2014.
Besides his work on the fire station, Hepfler has successfully been able to add several new pieces of equipment in recent years that make their job safer. He also convinced the City Council in 2017 to add a firefighter by splitting the fire chief/battalion chief into separate positions. The city combined the fire chief and battalion chief positions in 2006, taking effect on Jan. 10, 2007, when a battalion chief retired, as a cost-savings measure.
Hepfler said the switch allowed him as chief to attend more meetings during the day and be available during the workweek.
The city has seen a significant jump in calls for service, from about 900 calls annually when Hepfler started, to about 3,000 annually now.
“I respond to fire and EMS calls, and that gives us an extra person,” he added.
During his 30-plus years as an EMS/firefighter, the blaze at O’Connor’s Sports Bar & Grill on May 7, 2002, stands out. The building at 3 E. Spring St. was at the entrance to downtown, and the fire began in the basement.
“I was crawling in the basement. I went through three air bottles,” Hepfler recalled. “As a fire inspector, I had a lot of knowledge about how that building was laid out. It was probably the most exhausting fire.”
The building sat vacant for years before being razed; that site is now the home of the Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
Hepfler said one of the biggest challenges of the job is coping with deaths. He vividly remembers 10 death cases in a one-month span a few years ago.
“We all deal with it differently, but I never took it home,” he said. “We do a lot of open discussion when we get back to the station. I know there are things I just can’t control. We see people on their worst days, and we try to make it better for them. It sticks with you a bit, but you move on.”