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Local fire fighters go beyond their call of duty

By Staff | Oct 20, 2015

Andrew Willner (left) and Brooke Sonnicksen (right) of the Blue Earth Fire Department have headed the efforts of making Keith Larson (center) an honorary fire safety officer for Blue Earth.

For many, Fire Prevention Week is not too big of a deal. Sure, the area fire teams put on demonstrations of their tools and their skills, and do their utmost in their communities to teach people the proper way to prepare for and handle fires, but for most, it is just another week.

Not for Keith Larson. Keith has cerebral palsy and suffers from a seizure disorder, and his mother Sue Larson, is his main caretaker and provider. Sue Larson has worked as a physical therapist assistant at United Hospital District for almost 18 years. Sue was born and raised in the area, and moved back when Keith was around six or seven years old.

Though Keith has limited mobility and limited speech, sharing his affinity for people in uniform, including the firemen of Blue Earth, has no limitation. Keith knows the sign in American Sign Language for “fire,” which his mother states is one of his most frequently used sign, along with the sign for officer, which is placing one’s hand in the letter “c” on their chest.

Oct. 5 began Fire Prevention Week, and Keith was in for the surprise of his life, thanks to Andrew Willner and Brooke Sonnicksen, members of the Blue Earth Fire Department.

“The planning started much earlier than Fire Prevention Week,” says Willner. “We had planned to do it last year, but circumstances prevailed that made us have to wait until this year to fulfill what we had set out to do.”

Willner placing Keith’s new and official safety officer hat on him.

Willner and Sonnicksen have been in charge of fire prevention for children in the community since Willner was added to the force five years ago. Last year, knowing Keith’s love for all things fire, police, and safety, Willner and Sonnicksen decided to make Keith an honorary fire safety officer and fireman.

“I told Keith he would be getting a special surprise on the morning of Oct. 8,” said Sue Larson. “Sure enough, his excitement got the best of him and he had me up at 4 a.m. ready for his surprise. I had to tell him it wasn’t time yet.”

Keith was not the only one anticipating the coming event. Willner states that he, along with his fellow firefighter Sonnicksen, were very anxious to serve such a dutiful award to a community member. Once the time had come, Sonnicksen and Willner readied their shiniest red fire truck to head for the Larson home.

“I had him out on the sidewalk in his wheelchair, and before he could even see the fire truck, he was signing ‘fire,” says Sue Larson. “Once he saw the truck, he could not stop saying ‘fire’ and he was so excited. With every inch closer, Keith’s eyes grew wider with excitement.”

Once that shiny, red fire truck pulled up and Sonnicksen and Willner got out of it, Keith was given an official fire hat, and an official fire truck ride after being deemed an official fire safety officer.

Keith Larson in his new fire safety officer hat along with his fellow firefighters, Andrew Willner and Brooke Sonnicksen, get into a fire truck for a much-anticipated ride around Blue Earth.

The hat, itself, is something truly special to Keith. His mother explained that a few years back, Keith had received one of the readily available plastic fire hats from the fire prevention booth at the fair. From that point on, Keith could not part with the hat.

“It didn’t matter if it didn’t fit, or that it was made of plastic,” says Sue Larson. “It was shiny, and red, and most of all, it was a fire fighter hat, so he would not part with it. He would even sleep with it on and wake up when the hat would fall off of his head.”

Keith’s new hat is sure to not fall off now, not only because it is a real fire safety officer helmet, but because Keith takes his new position very seriously.

“When we saw Keith that following Saturday at the fire department open house, he was ready to show how much a part of the team he was, hat and all,” says Willner.

Willner and Sue Larson seem to have a mutual understanding of what one another does for people in their lives.

“We live in such a wonderful and loving community,” says Sue Larson warmly, “These firefighters, policemen, EMTs and other public service people have shown how understanding and supportive they are of other people’s differences in our community. These acts of kindness may seem small to some, but they go a long way. These men and women have made a difference in Keith’s life, and I am so grateful to be in such a wonderful community.”

And, it seems that Sue Larson’s respect is reciprocated by the officials she speaks so fondly of.

“Sue is the most kind-hearted person I’ve ever met,” says Willner. “Sue is someone who always sees the good in everything. She is always thinking of others before herself. She loves Keith and cares for him unconditionally. Making Keith an honorary fire safety officer will be a memory that will never leave me. In that fire truck ride, we knew he was keeping us safe in his new role as fire safety officer while enjoying that bright, warm sunny day with us, and it was all made possible by Sue, who allowed us that honor. She is a very passionate, caring, hard-working mother and a friend to many. We were the ones who were honored.”