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With a focus on collaboration, Chief Scott Gerber takes the reins at Eden Prairie Fire Department

In his 33-year career, Eden Prairie’s new Fire Chief Scott Gerber has seen it all.

“As a paramedic, as a firefighter, as an emergency manager, there’s probably not a lot of things I haven’t been a part of, both good and bad,” he told Eden Prairie News. “I’ve delivered six babies. Some of those have been in homes, some of those have been in the back of an ambulance, in the back of a car.”

Ten days into his tenure as fire chief, Gerber, 52, was busy putting roots into the fire department and community. He has been immersing himself in the department’s culture and history.

“I feel like I’m very much in a data gathering spot,” Gerber said. “The learning curve is steep.”

Gerber isn’t new to the field. He was Excelsior Fire Department’s chief for 12 years, worked as a Chaska firefighter for 22, and has led Carver County’s Risk and Emergency Management Department. Prior to that, Gerber was a paramedic at Ridgeview and St. Francis Medical Centers in Waconia and Shakopee.

“I think I’ve always had a heart, if you will, to be able to serve and work with people,” he said. “My very first lunch box that I ever had was an ‘Emergency!’ lunch box,” from the 1970’s show about Los Angeles paramedics and firefighters.

Gerber, who grew up in New Brighton and currently lives in Chaska, became the chief of the Eden Prairie Fire Department on April 1, taking on the role after former Chief George Esbensen retired in December after 16 years.

“Really it was about something different in my career,” Gerber said of his decision to leave Excelsior fire. “It’s a different type of operation that exists here.”

The 125-year-old Excelsior Fire District serves five cities: Deephaven, Excelsior, Greenwood, Shorewood and Tonka Bay. In his role there, Gerber had oversight from all five cities. Eden Prairie’s fire department, while larger than Excelsior Fire District, has a simpler structure, Gerber said.

“I have one city, I have one boss,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be the fire chief here.”

History is a common thread that ties the area’s fire department together, Gerber said. Although at 52, the Eden Prairie Fire Department is newer than Excelsior’s or the 150-year-old Chaska department, all three lean on the legacy of community support and of former firefighters and chiefs who built the departments into what they are today, Gerber said.

That includes regional departments working together to keep their communities safe, he said.

“I would tell you, 20 or 30 years ago, fire departments had a philosophy that said, ‘We’re gonna do things on our own.’ Today that doesn’t exist,” Gerber noted. “The history of what people have done in the past in order to get us to where we are today is very important.”

Gerber and Esbensen have worked together in the past. They both were on the All-Hazards Incident Management Team that traveled across the state and country to various disaster areas to assist and learn from other experts.

“If you would’ve told me when I started my career that someday I’d be dealing with hurricanes, I’d have said, ‘we don’t have hurricanes in Minnesota,’” he laughed. Traveling to Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York as part of a hurricane relief effort helped him learn and develop strategies for safety closer to home, he said, even though the North Star state doesn’t deal with hurricanes. “From that, we’re able to gain tools to make our systems better here.”

He hopes to continue building on the foundation laid by Esbensen and his other predecessors, he added, with a leadership style that revolves around empowering the people in his organization.

“I’m a leader that I believe needs and functions around team,” Gerber said. “We need to be able to work together to get where we’re going.”

“As a department that has 100 duty crew firefighters, all coming from walks of life — super talented people — we get to take all that and put it together,” he added. “I’d like to think that I can mentor, and as we mentor people internally, what does that look like and how do we plan for what that future might be?”

Outside of the department, Gerber relies on family, teamwork and outdoor adventure to keep him grounded.

“I have a great family that’s super supportive of what I do,” he said. His children and their families live across the country, and Gerber and his wife, Christine, travel occasionally to visit them. Raising four children while in the fire service was a study in work-life balance, he noted.

“Even though there’s a lot of demand, I tried really hard to be at school events, to be at the choir concert, to be at the athletic event. That’s a balance thing,” he said. “I think my kids and my family are proud of what their dad has done.”

Over the years, the family learned that the duty of a firefighter can call at any moment. Gerber recalled a Christmas Day when the family tradition of opening gifts early in the day had to be delayed until evening because “call after call after call” came in from the fire department. Even so, Gerber’s determination to make time outside of his career has paid off in terms of space for family and community.

“One of the things that I do to fill my bucket, I am the assistant coach for the Chaska High School baseball team,” he said. “I get a chance to be able to work with youth and to be able to have them fill my bucket as I watch and interact with them, and I’d like to think that I perhaps get to influence them and help mentor them a little bit with things that might happen, not only on the baseball field but in life as a whole.”

As he gets to know Eden Prairie, Gerber is focusing on learning from the other leaders in the department and the city. He recently visited PROP Food Shelf with Police Chief Greg Weber, is working with EPFD’s four assistant chiefs to learn about the department’s methods and culture, and will continue building on existing systems to care for the city’s firefighters’ physical and mental health to stay on the “cutting edge” of care.

“One of the biggest things I think every day is that we want everybody to go back home,” Gerber said.

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7 things to know about the new hands-free law (copy)

ST. PAUL — It will be illegal to hold your cell phone in your hand while you’re driving in Minnesota starting Aug. 1, 2019.

Gov. Tim Walz signed the so-called hands-free bill into law on Friday, April 12, while he was surrounded by families of people killed in distracted driving-related crashes.

“Many of the families who have been affected by distracted driving, and who have been tirelessly advocating for this law, are the reason we’re here today,” Walz said in a statement on April 12. “Minnesotans deserve safe roads and this bipartisan bill helps prevent senseless accidents and improves our public safety.”

The new law expands current law that prohibits drivers from texting, using email and browsing on their phones by banning a driver from using their phone unless it is in voice-activated or hands-free mode.

Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have banned handheld phone use while driving, a news release says.

Here are seven things to know about the new law:

1. What can I do while driving?

A driver can still make calls, send text messages, listen to music and get directions, but only if they are using voice commands or single-touch activation.

If it is an emergency situation — such as a driver who needs emergency assistance or if there is an immediate threat to life and safety — a driver can hold their phone in their hand. Authorized emergency personnel can also hold their phones while driving, so long as they are performing official duties.

2. What can’t I do while driving?

Under this new law, a driver can’t hold the phone in their hand while they are part of traffic — so that means at red lights, too. Drivers also can’t use their phone to video chat, live stream, Snapchat, look at photos, play games, use apps, read text messages or scroll or type on their phone.

3. GPS systems are OK

Systems that are only used for navigation and in-car screens and systems are allowed because they are exempt from the hands-free law. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s website says most of these systems lock when the vehicle is moving.

4. There are penalties if you break the law

The first ticket is $50, plus court fees. The second ticket, and any subsequent tickets, are $275, plus court fees.

5. The law goes into effect Aug. 1

Safety officials say that although the law goes into effect in a few months, drivers should start obeying it now to help make Minnesota’s roads safer.

6. This should help make roads safer

Safety officials believe the hands-free law will help make Minnesota roads safer and make it easier for officials to catch people who are breaking the law. Law enforcement agencies have cited difficulties in catching people texting and driving, noting prohibiting a driver from holding their cell phone in their hand will help them enforce these distracted driving laws.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s website notes the agency’s hope is people will comply with the new law without it needing to be enforced.

According to national data, in 12 of the states that have passed hands-free laws, the number of traffic-related deaths have gone down by an average of 15 percent.

7. There are several ways you can go hands free

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s website lists several ways people can go hands free while driving. Here are some of them:

  • Stop using your phone while driving altogether. Stash it in your truck, backseat or glove compartment so you aren’t tempted to use it.
  • Use a single earphone that has a microphone — this allows you to go hands free while still being able to make phone calls when needed. But remember, it is illegal in Minnesota to have earbuds in both ears at the same time while driving.
  • Sync your phone with your vehicle via Bluetooth, an auxiliary cable or the cassette player, and then use voice activation or single touch to use your phone through the vehicle’s audio system. If this doesn't work, you could buy a Bluetooth speaker for your car to go hands free.
  • Clip your phone to your dashboard and use voice activated or single-touch mode.