E-DEMOCRACY | Minneapolis firefighters: There is a problem

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July 17, 2012

Letter to the Editor: [Posted in E-Democracy as “Minneapolis Firefighters respond to Startribune Editorial from July 16th 2012.  Startribune has not printed the response.”]

The editorial “Sounding an Alarm on City Firefighting” finally recognizes the serious problem that Mayor R.T. Rybak created in the Minneapolis Fire Department. The facts are simple: When Rybak became Mayor, there were 110 firefighters working each day at nineteen fire stations; since then the Department has been cut by nearly 100 employees. Now, only 92 firefighters are working each day, a number that does not meet federal safety guidelines.

How did this happen?

This problem originated when Rybak’s former Fire Chief Rocco Forte convinced the Mayor that a City this size could be run with substandard crew levels. Chief Forte’s former boss, Tom Dickinson, testified under oath that it was necessary to maintain 110 firefighters to meet the needs of a city the size of Minneapolis. Yet, in an effort to promote himself and curry favor with the new Mayor, Forte convinced Rybak that the department could be run on 92 people per day. History has proven Forte to be absolutely wrong. And our members have paid the price.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that there is a problem. Just look to our neighbor to the east. Minneapolis and St. Paul are virtually the same size geographically. Yet, Minneapolis has 100,000 more residents and has many as 250,000 more people in the City during the day when people commute to downtown for work or attend the University of Minnesota. The city also draws literally millions of visitors to major sporting and entertainment events each year. But St. Paul has forty more firefighters than Minneapolis and has over 100 firefighters working each day. And while St. Paul suffered the same state budget cuts in LGA as Minneapolis, St Paul did not cut its Fire Department. Mayor Rybak cut firefighters, not the State.

Minneapolis firefighters respond to over 35,000 calls a year. That’s nearly 100 calls a day or one every 15 minutes. 70% are medical emergencies that require a 5 minute response to save lives. We cover more with fewer firefighters than St. Paul. It is no wonder that Minneapolis firefighters are injured at the rate they are. However, the consultant’s report on the use of our sick time contains a major factual error. According to official city records, on average our members used an average of less than 96 hours a year (less than four work days) in sick time which is average for fire departments around the country not 292 hours a year the consultant claims. The City’s consultant simply got it wrong. It is absurd to think our members missed 12 work days a year. That is a slur on our membership that must be corrected.

Minneapolis Firefighters appreciate the Star Tribune’s editorial opinion that it is time to restore the number of firefighters. Just one year ago, Mayor Rybak and his Council Members allies pushed for and got more cuts. Now, the City’s own consultant recognizes clearly the need to improve fire safety by adding firefighters. Contrary to Council Member Betsy Hodge’s assertion, Minneapolitans are not getting “excellent” fire protection. Adequate fire protection is defined by a 5 minute response time in fire and medical situations. We only got to 83.9% of all fires and 81.4% of all EMS calls in less than 5 minutes in 2011. I can assure Hodges 2012 will be worse. This is a matter of life and death. Last year at this time, we warned the public that this was a nightmare waiting to happen. Sadly, that nightmare came in full view of the public with the burning of the Walker Methodist Church. Six firefighters entered the Walker Church and were upstairs attempting to knock the fire out at its source. While up there, they called for the line to be charged, i.e. for water to be put in the hoses they were carrying. The water did not come. The fire was forty feet away and moving towards them. They called several times to charge the line and still no water came. Why? The City has inadequately staffed the rigs with only three people, and the effort necessary to bring water into a fire like the Walker Church required more than just one person manning the line. The only way the Walker six got out was to crawl underneath the fire. There was no water. There was no way to fight the fire. The crew courageously crawled through the fire to get out. Eventually the water came on, but not before one of our firefighters was seriously burned. Her road to recovery will be long and painful.

Knowing these facts what employer can in good conscience can send its workers into such a situation? The City was lucky the Walker six all came out alive. So were we.

Hopefully, Rybak now sees the error of discredited former Fire Chief Forte’s advice. It is simply impossible to adequately man the fire department with only 92 people a day. To do so means human lives are at risk. Not only firefighter’s lives, but also residents, workers and visitors who count on us making timely emergency medical responses. The Hennepin County and City Medical Examiner warned Rybak last year about the inadequate response time. It would be best now if Rybak and his Council allies would simply acknowledge to the public that they made a big mistake and restore the Fire Department to its rightful level.

Sincerely,

Mark Lakosky, President

Minneapolis Firefighters Local 82

 

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