Inside the Stoughton Fire Department’s main corridor, portraits of seven former fire chiefs line white walls – most of them with tenures in the department topping 30 years.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, fire chief Scott Wegner will be added to that wall. That’s the day he retires after 38 years of service, nearly six as chief.
“For his life and anybody’s life to be on that wall is an honor,” said SFD assistant chief Mark Hale, who has worked with Wegner for 18 of those years.
During the chief’s retirement party in the SFD’s training room Dec. 23, more than 70 people showed up to congratulate Wegner and shake his hand. In attendance were firefighters from Stoughton, Oregon, Verona and McFarland, as well as Stoughton area residents, police officers and retired firefighters, including previous chief Marty Lamers.
“I think Scott deserves retirement,” Lamers said. “We can thank him for his many years of service working for the city.”
Through his nearly four-decade career as a firefighter, Wegner has been a rescue diver, arson investigator, training officer, inspector, volunteer and fire protection specialist. He trained at the National Fire Academy in Maryland and has been part of firefighter associations all across the state, including two years as president for the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association.
The amount of calls the fire department takes each year has increased tenfold in that time, Wegner said, averaging 40 calls a year in the 1980s, to now 400 calls a year in 2019.
Before he was chief, Wegner was a fire inspector, checking commercial buildings, businesses, apartment complexes and municipal buildings. Wegner estimated he inspected between 16,000 to 17,000 places during his time in the role.
When he became chief Feb. 2, 2014, the city’s human resources department described him as having “extensive fire knowledge,” meaning Wegner understood the science, chemistry and strategy behind putting out a fire. Wegner said he can look at a fire and understand how much water and time it will take to extinguish it, known as calculating fire load, he said.
What sets Weger apart is his roots in the community, his level of knowledge about Stoughton and his connections to the businesses and people, Hale said.
“He is a walking database of important information when we had calls,” Hale said. “The city has grown and changed over the years so there is background information that is always of value when you are trying to do your job and serve the public.”
Wegner told the Hub he’s not sure how he feels about retirement because it hasn’t happened yet. He has created a full docket of activities after leaving the department, though.
With his newfound free time, he said he hopes to spend more hours harvesting honey from his 40 bee hives all around the county. He’ll also continue to be part of the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association, but he aims to spend more time with his THREE grandchildren and do things like take them to movies, as he did last week as they watched “Frozen II” for the second time.
Building a legacy
When Wegner took his first job as volunteer firefighter on April 1, 1981, he considered it a way give back to the community he has called home since the age of 4.
He said he knew late nights and putting out fires in the cold would not be easy.
Since then, he’s built a long list of accomplishments. Among them are helping the department add to and upgrade its equipment and starting the Stoughton Honor Guard.
To bring in equipment, he organized fundraisers and worked with the city. That allowed the volunteer firefighter team to focus less on paperwork and more on training and calls.
Among the more important acquisitions Wegner helped secure were new Hurst “Jaws of Life” equipment, sonar for the department’s rescue boat and a machine that cleans carcinogens off firefighters’ gear so they don’t have to do it by hand.
The Honor Guard started in 2015 and now has 18 members, traveling around the state to participate in funerals and memorials for service members.
At his retirement party, two members thanked Wegner, stating the guard would not have been possible without him.
One of Wegner’s proudest accomplishments, he said, is recruiting his son Matt to the SFD in 2008.
Lamers has known Weger for more than 40 years and recalled him demonstrating his leadership during what might have been the roughest week the fire department has ever had.
Wegner was the assistant chief in 2005 when a fire destroyed Christ Lutheran Church, which was then located in front of Stoughton Hospital on East Main Street. With the department and other investigators looking into the possibility it was arson – two juveniles were later arrested for it – and the department still cleaning its equipment, Lamers was swamped.
The next evening, Aug. 18, infamous Stoughton tornado destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes across south central Wisconsin. Many homes north and to the east of Stoughton fell victim to the EF3 storm, and one person died.
When it came time to jump into action and organize assistance from 50 other departments, Wegner led the charge, Lamers said.
“My role turned out to be in the field area running the commands for the tornado site,” Lamers recalled. “(Wegner) was back at the station bringing in people to help us. It was pretty much ‘Here Scott, deal with it,’ and he did.”
Wegner recalls it as one long shift.
“(That week) I can remember going to work on Tuesday and I remember coming home on Saturday,” he said.