New Minneapolis fire chief inherits hot seat

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Fire chiefs don’t stay long in Minneapolis.

On Friday, the City Council approved John Fruetel to become the city’s fifth fire chief since 2004.

Fruetel, 59, will inherit a department that is struggling with budget cuts, low morale and heavy criticism over firefighter overtime and sick leave pay.

“These are interesting times, and they are challenging, but I truly want to provide quality leadership,” Fruetel said.

Fruetel won’t take over until Mar. 1, but he said that maintaining the department’s current budget levels will be important in order to maintain its level of service.

Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union, said he is cautiously optimistic that Fruetel can restore confidence in the department and help restore its funding.

“I have no illusions of him coming in and the mayor letting him put all the rigs back in service that were cut under chief [Alex] Jackson,” Lakosky said. “But we really are as low as we can go without redesigning what this fire department does.”

Lakosky added that the department has struggled to maintain response times because the workforce has been cut by 17 percent in the last 10 years.

Jackson announced his retirement Jan. 4, surprising many city officials. Mayor R.T. Rybak said he planned on reappointing Jackson this year.

Jackson’s retirement continues a string of short terms for Minneapolis fire chiefs. Bonnie Bleskachek was forced out of her position in 2006 amid sexual harassment allegations. She had been appointed three years prior — the city’s first female and openly gay fire chief. Her replacement, James Clack, left his post in 2008 to lead the Baltimore fire department.

City Council members have criticized Jackson over abuses in firefighter sick leave, which cost the city roughly $1 million in overtime pay in 2011.

Fruetel acknowledged the issue but said it hasn’t impacted his relationship with Jackson. The two became close friends more than 30 years ago when they joined the department within one year of one another.

Jackson, who became the city’s first black fire chief in 2008 after the council elected him over Fruetel, has worked closely with Fruetel to prepare him for the position. Jackson said the two have been talking almost daily.

Hours after the council approved Fruetel for the position, he attended Jackson’s retirement party at Bill and Bonnie Daniels Firefighters Hall and Museum in northeast Minneapolis wearing a headshot of a young Jackson on his jacket.

Fruetel retired as Jackson’s assistant fire chief in 2010 and took a job with the city’s emergency preparedness department.

Rybak said that Fruetel’s experience within the fire department and outside of it made him the ideal candidate for the position.

“He’s a can-do, common sense, no-bull leader who understands the detailed operations of the fire department,” Rybak said. “He’s somebody who I’ve learned to trust from having worked with him in a couple big crises.”

Fruetel led the city’s response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and the north Minneapolis tornado in May.

City Councilwoman Betsy Hodges, one of the more outspoken critics on firefighter sick leave, said she thinks Fruetel will handle the new job well.

“Having a long history with the fire department and with firefighters will help smooth the transition,” she said.

While Fruetel has support from city leaders, Lakosky said he will have his work cut out for him.

“Hopefully bringing him to the table, some of these things get worked out and some of these issues get resolved,” Lakosky said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”