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From meeting his wife to rescuing a child in a pond, retiring St. Anthony fire chief ‘grateful’ to serve hometown - St. Paul Pioneer Press

Author: St. Paul Pioneer Press

Source: https://www.twincities.com/2023/10/30/st-anthony-fire-chief-mark-sitarz-retiring/

Image of From meeting his wife to rescuing a child in a pond, retiring St. Anthony fire chief ‘grateful’ to serve hometown - St. Paul Pioneer Press

When Mark Sitarz reflects on his 25 years as a St.Anthony firefighter, one word comes to mind above all.“Thankful,” he said last week.St.Anthony Fire Chief Mark Sitarz is retiring Oct.31, 2023, after 25 years with the fire department.(Courtesy of the St. Anthony Fire Department)Sitarz is thankful the city he grew up in hired him as a paid on-call firefighter in 1998, then as a lieutenant, captain and finally fire chief in 2013.He’s thankful he was able to respond to what would become the memorable calls, like meeting his future wife, Sarah, after her car overheated in 2001, and rushing to the Interstate 35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007.And, more recently, he’s thankful that he happened to be driving to work on Silver Lake Road one day in July — a moment in time that found him soon jumping into a murky pond and saving a boy from drowning.“Right place, right time,” he said.Sitarz, who turns 54 next month, now says the time is right to step away from the fire department, or “separate,” as he calls it.He’s decided to take an early retirement, a bittersweet choice brought about after a medical incident at work in June sent him to the hospital and caused him to evaluate his life.His last day as chief is Tuesday.“A lot of it is tied to stress,” Sitarz said, adding he’d rather keep the medical scare private.“But, I’m going out on my terms. That’s the decision I’m sticking with, and it’s going to be hard.I love these folks.I love this job.”Eric Bullen, fire chief of Albertville and a good friend, said the decision was Sitarz’s first selfish act of his career, one that he made for himself, his family — and his long-term health.“It was also the first time in his career that he did not put his department or community first — and rightfully so,” Bullen said in a speech earlier this month at the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association’s annual convention in Duluth.Sitarz was awarded fire officer of the year for cities under a population of 10,000.Trust is bigGrowing up in St.Anthony and then working for its fire department gave Sitarz a unique advantage at medical calls and other emergencies. He’s lost track of the number of times he responded to a home and he knew the person, or they knew his parents or siblings.“That’s been a game changer,” he said.“For a brief moment they’re not feeling pain or nervous anymore.There’s that level of trust that all of a sudden comes back.They know you, or they know my parents or my family.”Trust is big in the profession, he said.“Where else does someone open the door at 2 a.m., and put 100 percent trust that we’re going to take care of their loved one?” he said.“I like that trust, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. And I like that responsibility, because it pushes me to perform.”Sitarz attended Catholic schools all his life — St.Charles Borromeo in St.Anthony, Totino-Grace High School in Fridley and St.John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.After graduating with a degree in political science, he worked in information technology for 10 years.It wasn’t until shortly after he bought a house in St. Anthony in 1997 that he would make good on his boyhood wish to become a firefighter.He fondly recalls the night he saw a fire engine slowly driving by his new home — with Santa on the back and lights flashing — and firefighters walking along collecting donations for Toys for Tots.“I saw how much fun they were having and I said, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ I went up there the next day,” he said.“I always wanted to be a firefighter.”And the city is much better off because of that, Capt.Mattie Jaros said.“He’s definitely progressed the department and created a culture that I think other departments are envious of,” said Jaros, who joined the department in 2008.Even as the chief, Sitarz never missed a drill, Jaros said.“He’s put in a lot, so much — coming in day and night,” she said.Jaros can relate to the small-town feel. Her family owns Tony Jaros River Garden, a longtime bar in neighboring Northeast Minneapolis.“I was on a call once where the patient was like, ‘Your grandpa was in our wedding.Do you want to see photos?’ I’m thinking, ‘We’re on a medical call.’ But that’s part of the fun of being in a small town,” she said.Leaving department in a good placeThe city’s fire department is made up of 22 paid on-call firefighters and seven full-timers, at least two of which are always on shift 24 hours a day at its lone station along Silver Lake Road.The department has seen a steady rise in calls, mostly because of the addition of multifamily and senior-housing complexes.In 1998, the department handled just over 800 calls.They’re on pace for more than 1,800 calls this year, more than 75 percent of them medical-related.“And we still have two on a shift — that hasn’t changed,” Sitarz said.“And they are incredible. They’re workhorses.”For St.Anthony, which is in both Hennepin and Ramsey counties, adding staff can be tough for all of the departments, Sitarz said, adding that the city does not have the large commercial base like other communities.Take, for instance, the fire department’s recent switch to providing paramedic advanced life-support care.The move, made in February, means one paramedic is always on a shift, resulting in much quicker response times over waiting for a Hennepin County ambulance to arrive at a scene.To get it going, Sitarz relied on a $35,000 grant from the Gary Sinise Foundation to acquire a heart monitor and another $30,000 from an anonymous donor to pay for medical supplies and a new records management system.The move has been great to “bridge that gap of response time,” Jaros said.“We had the skills, but now we’re able to throw in medication and do more things with our monitor to see if someone is having a heart attack or not.”Israel Diaz, Roseville’s battalion chief, will succeed Sitarz, who Jaros said “has left the department in such a good place.It’s still going to be tough to see him go.”Water rescueOn July 14, Sitarz let City Manager Charlie Yunker know he made the decision to retire.“I didn’t take it lightly,” Sitarz said. “But my wife and I met with my doctors, and decided that, based on what was going on, it was time.”Little did he know he had one more heroic act left to do.While driving to work just before 8 a.m.July 26, Sitarz saw a woman walking away from a car parked in a traffic lane on Silver Lake Road in New Brighton.He swung around and parked his pickup behind hers, and got out.He saw a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, walking into the woods and down an embankment toward a pond.St.Anthony Fire Chief Mark Sitarz is shown shortly after he rescued a boy from a pond on July 26, 2023, in New Brighton.(Courtesy of the St. Anthony Fire Department)“Before I knew it, his dad started yelling at me, screaming to save his son, that the boy couldn’t swim,” Sitarz said.The fire chief grabbed his portable radio, called for assistance and ran toward the child, who went underwater briefly before popping back up.The woman, who also was in the water, told Sitarz the boy was autistic.Sitarz took off his boots, emptied his pockets and radioed to dispatch, “This is St.Anthony Chief 1.I’ve got a child in the water.I’m going in.”As he waded 35 yards into the water, which was up to his armpits, he saw the boy go under a second time. He swam as fast as he could and reached the boy, who fought as he was being pulled to the shoreline.Sitarz handed off the boy to St.Anthony police officer Braden McNair, telling him to bring the child to his father.“I look at that, and I’m thankful for it,” Sitarz said.“I really am.”Mark Sitarz retirement receptionSt.Anthony will host a public reception to recognize Mark Sitarz and his years of service to the community and the fire department from 3 to 5 p.m.Monday at City Hall, 3301 Silver Lake Road N.E.

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