Minn. fire captain remembered for trying to make life better for firefighters
St. Paul Fire Capt. Chris Parsons championed legislation about cancer, assisting injured firefighters and dealing with PTSD
By Mara H. Gottfried
ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Fire Capt. Chris Parsons’ firefighting gear and helmet sat empty Wednesday, next to his casket draped by an American flag.
The 48-year-old, known for his statewide advocacy for firefighter health and safety, died unexpectedly last week after a medical emergency. A sea of firefighters saluted as his casket was placed in the St. Paul engine from his North End station to carry him to his final resting place at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
For all the beautiful fire service traditions to honor the life and career of Parsons, his daughter told the hundreds gathered for his funeral that one particularly special to her was the honor guard of Parsons’ fellow St. Paul firefighters who stood watch over him.
Parsons was an organ donor and there was a time at the hospital when he was separated from his family due to a delay, said Annika Parsons.
“I was so upset because I thought he was all alone after we took care to make sure someone would always be with him,” she said, adding that it took her “a couple days to realize that because of the honor guard watching over him, he was never alone.”
Gov. Tim Walz, eulogizing Parsons at his funeral at Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis, said he loved taking his two daughters to firehalls throughout Minnesota. He also made a point of bringing Walz into stations. Parsons would ask Walz, “What do you see?”
“If I didn’t notice that there wasn’t a washing machine in there to clean the toxic chemicals off (gear) he would remind me, ‘This is what we need to do. These folks are on the line every day. What are we doing to make life a little better for them?’” Walz said. “… Chris left our state a better place than he found it. He was kind, he was compassionate and he was a good man.”
Parsons served as Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters president from 2014 to 2021, a position he was elected to, representing International Association of Fire Fighter local unions throughout the state.
His work meant every Minnesota firefighter has access to education, prevention and care for the three biggest risks in their profession — cancer, cardiac and emotional trauma, said St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks.
“Sadly, Chris’ passing at an early age is indicative of the health risks to firefighters he made great effort to call attention to and worked so hard to reduce,” Inks said.
The St. Paul fire department and International Association of Fire Fighters consider Parsons’ death as occurring in the line of duty. He went into cardiac arrest within hours of finishing a shift. IAFF’s national president and secretary-treasurer were among the union officials who presented Parsons’ family with a line-of-duty medal during his funeral.
Capt. Mike Smith, president of the St. Paul firefighters’ union, said with Parsons standing at 6 feet 7 inches tall, “he was regarded as a towering figure, both in physical stature and at the state Capitol.”
He championed legislation that banned cancer-causing chemical retardants, provided lifesaving financial assistance to firefighters injured at work and helped passed laws that protect first responders from the devastating effects of PTSD and COVID-19, Smith said.
Parsons started his career as a St. Paul firefighter in 2000 and was promoted to captain in 2007.
Smith asked firefighters and elected officials how they would remember Parsons, and the “stories were many,” including him playing tennis, turning every TV on in the station to the tennis channel, ski trips with friends and family, singing “Ebony and Ivory” with firefighters, hitting his head on top of doors on a regular basis, and slipping on ice and then looking like a baby giraffe trying to walk.
“All of us will miss Chris’ leadership, his big smile, his great humor, his love for his family,” Smith said. “… In a career cut way too short, he touched many lives and left a lasting impression on everyone he worked with.”
Parsons is survived by his partner, Johanna; daughters Kaya and Annika; parents Johnny and Kathy; and brother John.
Because of Parsons’ focus on championing legislation that banned cancer-causing chemical fire retardants, the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative has established a memorial fundraiser for Parsons for PFAS research and its impact on firefighters at gofundme.com/f/chris-parsons-memorial-fund-for-pfas-research.