Falcon Heights volunteer fire department gets high marks

The results are in and a consultant’s findings represent a big thumbs-up for Falcon Heights’ volunteer fire department.

Over the years, there had been talk of sharing or consolidating the city’s fire services with adjacent communities and a large house fire in University Grove in 2011 prompted city officials to fund an analysis by Springsted, Inc.

“The study found we have a good department,” said Mayor Peter Lindstrom. “There are some issues that need to be addressed, but I consider them more tweaks than major overhauls. I applaud the department for being so open and involved with this review.”

According to council member Beth Mercer-Taylor, “The report made it very clear that we have a history of providing quality, affordable fire service that’s something to be proud of.”

Lauderdale City Council member Denise Hawkinson added that she is “totally satisfied” with the fire service being provided to her city.

The department serves the 7,700 residents of Falcon Heights and Lauderdale from its station at Falcon Heights City Hall, 2077 W. Larpenteur Ave.

It responds to about 110 calls a year, including fire and rescue calls, vehicle accidents with injuries and nonemergency incidents. In 2012, firefighters handled a half-dozen house and garage fires in Falcon Heights and Lauderdale and responded to mutual aid calls in Roseville, St. Anthony Village and Lake Johanna.

The Springsted study compared the Falcon Heights/Lauderdale fire service to that of six other roughly similar communities in the metropolitan area and found it to be the least expensive at $16.40 per resident per year. The department’s average call response time of 6 minutes, 46 seconds is well within state and local standards, including National Fire Protection Association guidelines. The consultant also gave the department high marks for its level of professionalism.

Falcon Heights’ nearly two dozen volunteer firefighters carry pagers and respond to fire calls from work or home. For this they are paid an hourly rate, as they are for weekly training drills. Each firefighter is required to respond to 30 percent of all calls and participate in 33 drills a year to remain in good standing.

Fire Chief Clem Kurhajetz has been with the department for nearly 30 years. “We’re not full-time, but we train as professionals and we work as professionals,” he said.

The firefighters include a financial planner, plumber, an ambulance company employee, teachers and retirees. Those joining the force receive more than twice the training their predecessors did years ago and they have much better equipment and working conditions, the chief said.

For example, when Kurhajetz started with the department, firefighters rode outside on the trucks. “I remember coming back from a mutual aid call in Roseville, frozen to the seat,” he said.

What’s the appeal of serving as a volunteer firefighter?

“I thought the idea of citizens in the community providing their own service and helping neighbors in an emergency—at minimal expense to taxpayers—was really cool,” said Mike Kruse, who has been with the department for three years. “Also, I must admit there’s an adrenalin rush involved.”

Kurhajetz said he welcomed the Springsted report, which, in his words, “shed a good light on the department.”

The consultant made a series of recommendations for the council to consider, some expanding on what the department is already doing to an extent. Several have budget implications, including the notion of creating a paid position of fire chief/fire marshal.

(Another thorny budgetary consideration is what to do about the city’s 22-year-old ladder truck, which is approaching the end of its useful life and starting to require expensive upkeep.)

The University Grove fire on Folwell Street in 2011 involved an unoccupied house without smoke detectors and the blaze was well advanced before it was noticed. The first call from a neighbor came shortly after 3 a.m. and a St. Anthony police squad was on the scene two minutes later. “There was so much fire that the video from the squad’s dashboard camera looks like it was daytime,” the chief said. “We did what we could, but there wasn’t much to save.”

Council member Mercer-Taylor, who lives a block away from the house that burned, said that people in the neighborhood seem to feel better about their fire service. “I think that initially, the sheer size of the fire left many of us shaken,” she said, “but I don’t think people are anxious anymore.”

To see the consultant’s report, go to the city’s website at www.falconheights.org and use the search term “springsted.” The Falcon Heights Fire Department is actively seeking new members. You can find out what’s involved on the city’s website.

Roger Bergerson is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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