Panger chosen to lead SFDStarting Dec. 21, Jim Rigstad will have more time to fish. The longtime firefighter and current chief of the Superior Fire Department is set to retire just before Christmas.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Starting Dec. 21, Jim Rigstad will have more time to fish. The longtime firefighter and current chief of the Superior Fire Department is set to retire just before Christmas.
Steve Panger, a 19-year veteran of the department, takes his place as Superior’s new fire chief.
“I think Steve will do a great job,” Rigstad said. “He’s very politically active. He’s had contact with the city council and other department heads previously. He knows some of the processes.
“He’s probably more politically correct than I am.”
Panger is good at analyzing situations before coming to a decision.
“I think that’s important for somebody in the chief’s position,” Rigstad said.
A Cloquet native, Panger said he’s excited to take on the new role.
“I knew I could provide a vision for our department,” said the incoming chief. “I knew I had support from my coworkers. I felt it was the position I could help the department most in.”
He said the strength of the Superior Fire Department lies in his coworkers.
“They love this job,” Panger said. “They do it because they want to help people.”
The challenge will lie in keeping them on the job.
“The budget is always a big concern,” Rigstad said. “The only way to cut the budget is to cut people, which will affect services.”
Over the last 30 years, the department has trimmed and trimmed while expanding services, Panger said. Superior’s economy is lifting with the planned Kestrel development and other business expansions.
“We have to play from a different playbook now,” Panger said. “If we want services to stay, and stay at this level, we have to start thinking in a different direction.”
While technology can help in some areas, he said, there are many aspects of firefighting that come down to basic “boots on the ground.” Recent budget cuts have actually backfired, Panger said, costing more in overtime than they would have paid for the lost positions.
One boost for the new chief is a FEMA grant secured by Rigstad. The two year, $944,962 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant will allow the department to staff three firefighter positions lost this year and add on three new firefighters.
“That grant was a really nice way for Chief Rigstad to go out,” Panger said. “It does everything for the morale of the department.”
It will bring staffing levels at each of the city’s fire halls to four, the highest they’ve been in the past 17 years.
The new chief’s job will be to try to keep them there by aggressively seeking alternative funding.
“We need to find ways to support services without constantly going to the taxpayers,” Panger said.
Increasing communication with the community, and in particular, Superior businesses is also one of his goals.
“We want business owners to understand we’re partners with them, not just service,” he said. Beefing up fire inspections, which suffered with the loss of manpower, is on his list too. Through an increase in training, manpower and equipment, he hopes to improve the city’s ISO rating, which determines fire insurance rates.
“That’s one area that’s very important that people don’t see directly,” said Panger, but it does have an impact. He also hopes to find funding to renovate the main fire hall. The city’s fire halls were built around 1980, he said, and were not built to house all the equipment needed for the department’s expanding role.
Panger started with the department 19 years ago. In 2005, he was promoted to motor pump operator. In 2011, he became a captain. He spent 12 years as president of the firefighters’ union and was on the International Association of Firefighters for five years.
Last year, he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in fire science.
While Panger will be sworn in before taking on his new duties, a ceremony is planned for January.