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Department OKs school's new fire drill setup, observes Fire Prevention Week

Students and staff at Faribault Lutheran School filed out of the building at 8:45 a.m. Monday morning and congregated on the lawn east of the parking lot — a response to a practice fire drill to kick off Fire Prevention Week.

Schools throughout the country observe Fire Prevention Week Oct. 4-10 as part of Fire Prevention Month. In Faribault, Fire Chief Dusty Dienst visited FLS Monday to provide feedback on the schools’ procedure for evacuating everyone from the building.

“I applaud you,” Dienst told the students and staff. “You did a great job, and I love that you’re all right here.”

Faribault Fire Chief Dusty Dienst gave Faribault Lutheran School staff and students positive feedback on their fire drill exit methods after reporting to the lawn south of the parking lot. FLS Principal Becky Gerdes, pictured, introduced a new step to the drill this year. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

First-year FLS Principal Becky Gerdes added a new step to the school’s fire drill procedure this year after. To help teachers account for all their students after exiting the building, they first grab a laminated red and green card from their classroom door caddy. Out on the lawn, teachers hold up the green side of their card to indicate all their students are present or with another supervising adult. If a student is caught in a transition, like returning from the bathroom, the teacher holds up the red side of the card. The office staff or administration workers then track down the absent student.

Gerdes previously developed the red and green card step when she worked at another elementary school and wanted to replicate it at FLS.

“I’ve worked at a building with 1,000 students, and it worked there,” Gerdes said.

Dienst said he never saw the red/green card method applied at any other schools in Faribault before but would like other elementary schools to become aware of the option. FLS has the advantage of a smaller student population and smaller building, he said, but the Faribault Public Schools elementary school might be able to adjust the procedure to include intercom communication in addition to the signs. The system wouldn’t work as well with large schools like Faribault Middle School and Faribault High School, however, Dienst said.

In applying the new step for the first time Monday, FLS teachers accounted for all their students in no time at all.

“It’s really simple, and simplicity and flexibility is so necessary in these kinds of plans,” Dienst said.

Later in the week, Dienst plans to return to FLS to supervise staff as they implement another fire drill, this time with a chair impeding the use of one of the doors. Students and staff typically exit the door nearest them, but Gerdes wants to ensure they respond appropriately if the nearest exit imposes a safety threat.

Fire Prevention Month

The Faribault Fire Department will make appearances at other schools in town throughout the next few days, but Dienst said the team will do far less classroom engagement compared to prior Fire Prevention weeks.

Due to visitor restrictions at Faribault Public Schools, a protocol established to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the department worked with Troy Temple of TLT Video Productions and National Fire Prevention Week resources to put together a video equivalent of its annual classroom education piece. A representative of the department will also bring a fire truck to some of the school parking lots to show students the functions of various tools and how to operate the fire hose and ladder.

At Jefferson Elementary School Monday, students gathered in the parking lot to learn about the various tools firefighters use when putting out a fire. Pictured is Faribault Firefighter Rick Martinez showing students a pulaski. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Faribault Firefighter Rick Martinez explained to Jefferson Elementary students how the fire hose works to extinguish a fire. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Since COVID-19 prevented a number of community partners from organizing fire safety presentations this year, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) developed a number of online resources for local fire departments to promote.

The 2020 Fire Safety Week campaign is titled “Serve Up Fire Safety in the Kitchen,” since the leading cause of home fires in the U.S. is attributed to cooking. According to USFA, fire departments in the U.S. responded to 189,000 cooking fires in residential buildings per year from 2016 to 2018. These fires resulted in an estimated 170 deaths, 3,300 injuries and $443 million in property loss.

To raise awareness of how to prevent residential fires, particularly those that start in the kitchen, USFA released outreach materials like social media cards, videos and pictographs. These resources serve as not only teaching tools but simple and eye-catching visuals that are accessible to those who struggle with reading or those who speak a language other than the one represented.

Music, dancing and food planned for Saturday's International Festival

With precautions in place to guard against the spread of COVID, the Faribault Diversity Coalition is preparing to hold its 15th annual International Festival Saturday in Central Park.

FDC Project Manager Peter van Sluis has spent the last several weeks organizing the festival. It’s one of three main tasks he’s been assigned, along with organizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast and bringing back some of the FDC’s regular programming.

A Dutch immigrant and member of the City Council who speaks numerous languages, van Sluis is no FDC newcomer. More than a decade ago, he was part of a group of area residents who resuscitated an organization on life support in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Now, he’s helping to bring back an FDC and International Festival that were put in jeopardy by a leadership vacuum, in addition to the pandemic that has made it even more difficult to connect with the immigrant community.

COVID-19 will make this year’s International Festival a bit trickier than in years past, and traditional activities like face painting and the bouncy house are out. However, most activities will remain, including most of all the food.

FDC Board Member Asha Knish has designed proper procedures to keep everyone safe. At first, Knish said she was unsure if it would be safe for the FDC to have the event, but she says that all signs now suggest it can be done with the cooperation of participants.

“If we do the things we know we can do, such as mask use, using hand sanitizer and social distancing, we think it can still be an enjoyable event,” she said.

The International Festival traditionally eschews restaurants and food trucks in favor of home cooked food, and that will be no different this year. Still, food vendors are allowed to charge a little if they don’t want to give away the food for free. van Sluis said that even local organizations serving traditionally American fare, like hotdogs and chips, are welcome. More than 10 food booths are expected, with another 20 providing information and various activities.

Multi-generation Faribault residents proud of their own heritage, such those as from Germany, are welcome as well. On the food side of things, Norwegian lefse is expected to be an option alongside Mexican tacos, tamales from El Salavdor and Somali sambusas.

With social distancing on the menu, the International Festival will feature food from more than a half-dozen cultures along with everything from music to dance to henna painting. Local nonprofits like the HOPE Center and Friends of the Library will also have booths set up.

While events like the Blue Collar BBQ Festival have had to be cancelled due to COVID fears, the International Festival is permitted to go on so long as attendance doesn’t exceed 250 persons at any one time. Holding it outside is expected to further reduce the risk of infection.

2019 was also the first International Festival to be held in October rather than the traditional August, so this will be the first Festival held outdoors in the fall. That could make for interesting weather, but early forecasts suggest sunny skies and temps in the high 60s.

As of Monday, conditions are forecast by NOAA to be sunny with a high around 70, making for perfect festival weather. However, if the forecast does go south, van Sluis has said that only stormy conditions, not cold or rain, could stop the show.

A centerpiece of the International Festival has always been the flag ceremony. The FDC has 24 different flags on hand and is searching for natives of those countries to give a short talk on the culture, cuisine and other notable tidbits about their country.

If natives of a country whose flag the FDC does not currently own are interested in speaking about their country, van Sluis said he’d be eager to accommodate. In total, he has set a goal of seeing close to 30 countries represented in the hourlong flag ceremony.

“It’s a great chance to meet people from other cultures,” he said. “We have a good mix of different nationalities, but I still want more.”

Both the Somali and Latino communities will be well-represented. A week before the festival, van Sluis confirmed three Somali food booths and four Somali information booths with several invitations outstanding. Natives of numerous Latin American countries will be on hand as well.

Nearly every entertainment slot has filled up for the Festival, though the last half-hour session on the bandshell will be obscured somewhat by a particular popular ceremony for children and families — the breaking of the pinata.

In addition to volunteers and nonprofit organizations, van Sluis said that the Festival is soliciting for volunteers. Plenty more are needed to ensure the free festival runs as smoothly as possible.

“It’s going to be a fun day in the park, all about different cultures coming together,” he said.

Absent his opponent, incumbent Congressman takes chamber's questions

With less than a month to go to election day, first-term Congressman Jim Hagedorn fielded a wide range of questions from Owatonna Chamber of Commerce members Monday.

The event was the first in a series of candidate forums to be held by the Chamber over the coming weeks. Chamber staff also reached out to DFL candidate Dan Feehan’s campaign, but he declined the invitation. The forums are sponsored by the Chamber, Owatonna Noon Rotary Club and Owatonna People's Press. 

While Democrats currently enjoy a comfortable majority in the House and are expected to keep it in November, the 1st District is seen by national prognosticators as a race that could go either way. In 2018, Hagedorn beat Feehan by just 1,315 votes out of nearly 300,000 cast.

Just one of a handful of seats nationwide to switch hands from Democrat to Republican in 2018, the 1st District stretches across southern Minnesota from Winona to Luverne. Trump won it by 15 points in 2016, but prior to that it voted twice for President Barack Obama.

Along with fellow Minnesota Republican Congressmen Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber, Hagedorn rode aboard Air Force One with President Trump on Wednesday, shortly before the President’s COVID diagnosis. Hagedorn tested negative for the virus on Friday, though it can often take days for the viral load to increase to detectable levels. He maintained that his interactions did not meet the definition of “close contact” — more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of a COVID-infected individual.

Though Hagedorn has been cleared by the House physician to work, he appeared virtually at the Owatonna Chamber forum. Chamber President Brad Meier said the decision was made out of an “abundance of caution.”

Hagedorn touted his conservative record and local work on local issues. As a member of the Agriculture and Small Business Committee, he said he’s worked hard with colleagues from both parties to protect the region’s ethanol industry and help small businesses hit by COVID.

“As I’ve said all along, I’m a conservative who will vote as a conservative, and I’ve fulfilled my promises in that area,” he said. “I also said I’d look out for the needs and interests of the district, and I’ve fulfilled my promises in that.”

Though Hagedorn may have had a concerning last few days, the first question from moderator Randy Doyal, CEO of the Al-Corn Clean Fuel plant in Claremont, was certainly no softball. Doyal pressed him hard on a controversial expenditure scandal that has rocked his office.

Hagedorn’s office expenditures became the source of controversy after it was revealed that he spent 40% of his allotted office expenditures in the first quarter of 2020, totals dwarfing every other congressional office and raising significant questions. Much of that funding went into direct mailings to constituents. Scandal arose when it was revealed that part of those printing costs were paid out to a company owned by John Sample, a part-time staffer in Hagedorn’s office.

Hagedorn fired his chief of staff shortly after the allegations broke, though Sample remains on staff. The Congressman insisted that he did nothing wrong and began an internal review when he was made aware of the issue.

“The way the contracts were put together, I didn’t approve of that,” he said. “When I found out about it, I immediately made personnel changes.”

Hagedorn pushed some blame to the Democrats, noting that the House Administration Committee had approved the mailings. At a recent debate, he counterattacked his opponent Feehan for working for several Washington-based groups over the last several years.

COVID, childcare and reopening

Hagedorn pledged to support legislation that would shield businesses from COVID-19 related liability lawsuits, provided they follow state, local and federal guidelines. He said that without those protections, many businesses could face huge risks in reopening.

“We have to have it for our schools, small businesses and others so people can get back to work,” he said.

Doyal also pressed Hagedorn on the issue of unemployment insurance, noting that many local businesses had said increased unemployment checks made it more difficult to bring employees back to work.

Hagedorn said that he backed the CARES Act and other legislation in part because he believes it’s important to support people going through hardship due to COVID-19. However, he doesn’t believe the unemployment checks under the CARES Act were administered well.

“In the future we need to have a standard that protects and helps people when they’re down and out,” he said. “But when they’re called back to work, they need to lose their unemployment.”

In general, Hagedorn said that Congress should take a very cautious approach to unemployment benefits. Should those on unemployment get paid more than those in the workforce, he warned it could disincentivize work.

Hagedorn, who identifies as a fiscal conservative, said that additional stimulus is justified but that it should be targeted to where it is most needed. In particular, he said farmers and small businesses in the 1st District are in need of assistance.

“Everything we spend moving forward should be targeted toward where the need is,” he said, adding that without additional small business assistance, Hagedorn said that business closures could devastate the local economy. In addition to providing more funding, he said that Congress should work to streamline the assistance application process for small businesses as well.

Another top issue for the chamber was the lack of affordable childcare. Hagedorn touted legislation he’s backed that would allow parents to use pre-tax income to pay for childcare, and has also backed bills to provide loans and grants for aspiring childcare providers.

Hagedorn said that the issue has been exacerbated by the approach of his predecessor as 1st District Congressman, Gov. Tim Walz, toward the pandemic. Along with Emmer and Stauber, he’s urged Walz to relax restrictions to help get Minnesota students back in school.

“The problem is exacerbated when parents aren’t able to go back to work full-time because they’re having to take care of kids at home,” he said.

Senator cited for impaired driving

State Sen. John Jasinski, in the midst of a campaign for a second term, was cited early Saturday for two counts of driving while impaired.

Jasinski, 54, confirmed Saturday morning the charges filed in Rice County, and later, Saturday afternoon, shared a statement with the Faribault Daily News.

“On Oct. 3, I was pulled over for a driving infraction,” Jasinski said. “I take complete responsibility for my actions. This case is pending, and

I am awaiting the legal process.”

He added, “However, I do want to say that I understand my actions affect my family, friends, and constituents. I cannot overstate my gratitude for the public’s understanding, support, and thoughts during this time.”

According to the Minnesota courts website, Jasinski was charged with fourth-degree DWI and DWI, having a blood alcohol level over .08 after two hours.

Jasinski, a Faribault native and real estate broker, has an extensive resume of community and government involvement, including more than a decade on Faribault city boards, two years on City Council and eight years as its mayor. He was elected to the state Senate in 2017 and quickly aligned himself with the body’s powerbrokers.

He’s largely credited as the driving force behind funding for the four-laning of Hwy. 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center, a project discussed for 50 years.

The charges against Jasinski come just days after Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn and Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh expressed serious concerns over an increase in drunken driving.

“Of all the public safety and public health concerns out there, when it comes to the dangers of drinking and driving there is no one who is unaware that it is an issue, so to see a spike in those numbers during a year where there are a lot of other stressors going on in our community, it is frustrating,” said McIntosh.