Spotlight on MnFIRE Training: Q&A with Instructor Andy Willenbring

In tandem with our medical experts, dedicated MnFIRE training instructors like Andy Willenbring deliver crucial education about cancer, cardiac, emotional wellness, fitness, nutrition, sleep and more to fire departments across the state – and we couldn’t do it without them.

Andy has been in the fire service for 23 years, a goal of his since he grew up watching his father as a firefighter in White Bear Lake for 30 years. He started as a paid-on-call firefighter and Captain at Maple Grove, and more recently retired as a Lieutenant from the St. Louis Park Fire Department in October 2023. Andy has been a MnFIRE training instructor for four years now and during that time he’s taught nearly sixty trainings to fellow firefighters. We sat down with him to see what inspires him to do this work and how he empowers others to focus more on their well-being and open up about struggles within the fire service.

Why did you want to get involved with MnFIRE and become a training instructor?

I love training and talking to firefighters. It’s one of the best things about being a firefighter. And I got involved with MnFIRE because their Peer Support team got me through some pretty rough, emotionally traumatic times in my life. I thought it would be a great way to give back and tell my story so that no one else has to go through what I went through.

How are the training lessons benefitting Minnesota firefighters? What impact are they having?

I think a lot of people roll their eyes when they hear about a training presentation, but making it interesting – adding my own stories, experience and knowledge – makes it more fun for people to learn and be there. When I talk about my struggles with emotional trauma, it adds a real face to a real problem that many are struggling with and are afraid to talk about. When someone is standing in front of a class talking about their thoughts, nightmares, struggles and legitimately crying, it adds a realness to the training that hopefully makes a difference in someone’s life.

Why is it important for departments to participate in MnFIRE training?

[Cardiac disease, cancer and emotional trauma] are real problems in the fire service. Real problems that can be addressed with some simple changes in the way we live our lives and the way departments operate. I think it’s important for departments to all learn the same things to improve firefighters’ quality of life. No matter the size, location or function, all firefighters in Minnesota are in this together. No matter how different each department is, we all should have the same goal: the health and wellness of all firefighters.

Has there been anything surprising that you’ve learned during your time as a MnFIRE trainer?

I’ve had several firefighters reach out to me from all across the state after a training session and tell me that they have been having emotional trauma problems, and after listening to my presentation, they decided now is time to get help. It’s very surprising how widespread the need for help across the state is. We are so fortunate in Minnesota to have the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program. It’s a one-of-a-kind program.

Is there anything else you want to tell firefighters about this training?

MnFIRE training is more important than you think it is. It’s important for firefighters to learn about how to better help themselves and help each other. But it’s even more important to share this information with your family and friends. Talk openly and be honest about what it means to be a firefighter, and how others can help you be a better person and live a long happy life.

Remember, it’s OK to not be OK. We all want to go home at the end of a shift or call, and these trainings will help you and your fellow firefighters do that.

Get trained for free

The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program supports annual MnFIRE training for all Minnesota firefighters, at no cost to departments. If your department has already completed our general awareness training about firefighter occupational health risks, there are several new deep-dive trainings now available. Click here to learn more and register for a training.

If you’re interested in becoming a MnFIRE training instructor like Andy, please reach out to Director of Program Delivery DeeDee Jankovich. We’re especially looking for new trainers in greater Minnesota.

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The fire service comes with its own unique stress, and the important work we do can quickly weigh on us emotionally. But confidential peer support, counseling sessions with specialized mental health professionals and other mental health resources are always available to Minnesota firefighters and their families, at no cost to them through the MnFIRE Assistance Program.

For more information or for help, call 888-784-6634 or visit mnfireinitiative.com/hhap/#MAP.

#mentalhealthmatters #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth
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Thank you to the dedicated firefighters at home in Minnesota, and around the world, who sacrifice so much to serve and protect their communities.

We show our support on #InternationalFirefightersDay, and every day, by providing the physical and mental health resources they need to prioritize and protect their health against cardiovascular disease, emotional trauma and cancer.
... See MoreSee Less

Thank you to the dedicated firefighters at home in Minnesota, and around the world, who sacrifice so much to serve and protect their communities.

We show our support on #InternationalFirefightersDay, and every day, by providing the physical and mental health resources they need to prioritize and protect their health against cardiovascular disease, emotional trauma and cancer.
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