The Final Call

One of the city’s senior first responders is about to transition out of his role after four decades of service to area communities.

Yankton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Kurtenbach will celebrate his last day on the job Jan. 14.

Kurtenbach announced his retirement last month.

He told the Press & Dakotan it was partially the world of television that helped him get on the path to a firefighting career.

“There used to be a show on called ‘Emergency!’ way back when on TV and it was about paramedics that were in the Los Angeles Fire Department,” he said. “It kind of got me interested in emergency services.”

He said that he took an EMT class while attending the University of South Dakota in 1981 where he would also serve as an EMT with the Vermillion and Clay County EMS, as well as the ambulance service in Bridgewater. This led him to taking a job with the fire department in Pierre in the mid-1980s.

“Once you join and get involved in emergency services, you either like it or don’t, and I really liked it,” he said.

In addition to firefighting, Kurtenbach also worked with the Division of Insurance and the Department of Emergency Management — then called the Department of Emergency and Disaster Service — where he helped put together the statewide rural addressing system.

After holding a number of positions with the fire department in Pierre, Kurtenbach applied for the open chief spot with the Yankton Volunteer Fire Department, a position he’d take over in the spring of 2005.

“When you first get here, you have to learn the department and that takes a while,” he said. “It takes a while to get used to how things are done here and what you’d like change. And in a volunteer department, change does not necessarily come quick. You’ve got to bring the department with you and the changes you want to do and get their buy-in. I always like to say, ‘Hopefully I’ve left the place a little bit better than how I found it.’”

And while change may not necessarily come quickly, Kurtenbach talked about one change he helped to initiate in the department.

“One of the big things we did while I was here was to actually get the (City) Commission and the city manager on board with building a second fire station,” he said. “I was proud to be able to be the catalyst for building a second station.”

He said that decision has helped in boosting the area’s emergency preparedness.

“We improved our (Insurance Services Office) rating from a five to a three and in the rural area, we went from a nine or 10 all the way down to a three if you’re within five miles of a fire station,” he said. “Especially in the lake area, that’s a huge accomplishment. That’s not just me — that’s the volunteers, the water department and dispatch.”

Kurtenbach also said he’s had the chance to work with good people throughout his tenure in Yankton.

“We’ve got some great volunteers in town,” he said. “Working with them, they become your family and they become your friends.”

And while technology has changed significantly in the years he has been in emergency response, he said the people have largely not changed.

“There’s still good people who want to volunteer and serve their community,” he said. “Maybe the newer folks learn a little bit differently than the older folks do, but they’re just as eager to get out and help the community and they have the same reasons for joining.”

Kurtenbach said he’s enjoyed his time in firefighting but recognizes the sacrifices of those closest to him.

“The one thing I realize is probably the biggest sacrifice that’s been made is by my family,” he said. “When I came here, my oldest was 4 and my youngest was about 6 months old. We’ve grown up here and the fire department’s been our family, but they’ve had a lot of sacrifices, too — had to get up for calls during birthdays (and), the holidays, leave dinners and not been able to go places because I’ve been on call and not been able to go out in the boat with them on the Fourth of July because I’ve been on call. They made a huge sacrifice in order for me to be able to do my job and serve the community.”

Kurtenbach said he will be staying in Yankton following his retirement as fire chief. He said he has every intention of continuing to serve the community in a new way.

“I’m going to be going to work for the United Way being the Retired Senior Volunteer Program coordinator,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to doing that.”

Brad Moser, currently a captain with the Yankton Fire Department, will take over as interim chief Jan. 14. A “come and go” party to celebrate Kurtenbach’s retirement is set for Jan. 14 from 3-5 p.m. at Fire Station No. 2.

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