North Side could feel the pinch of short fire dept. staffing

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City budget cuts, the war in Iraq, gas prices over $3 a gallon…all have hurt staffing at Minneapolis Fire stations all over the city, including those on the North Side, according to Minneapolis Fire Chief James Clack.

Although fire incidents were fairly low in the summer and this fall, he added, the city is likely to see more house fires as foreclosures continue and houses are abandoned, making them targets for vagrants and arsonists. The North Side has been hit hard by foreclosure-related abandoned-house issues in the past two years.

And, a new class of firefighters starts in January. Veterans are coming back from Iraq, who will return to their firefighting jobs.

“We have a lot of great men and women working on the street,” Clack said. “We’re trying to keep them safe until we can get enough help.”

Firefighter Tim Dziedzic and Minneapolis Assistant Chief of Operations John Fruetel recently brought the issue to the neighborhood level when they talked to the Audubon and Waite Park neighborhood associations in Northeast Minneapolis about short staffing at fire houses.

“Three years ago at Station 15 [on Johnson Street], ladder 7 was taken, and the number of firefighters went from seven down to four,” Dziedzic said. “They brought in a quint truck, which nobody wanted, and now most days there are only three people riding on it. The problem with that is, it’s basically impossible to lay a line and have people do the truck work at the same time. There’s nobody to do ventilation. It affects search and rescue and safety for the firefighters.”

Dziedzic said stations are understaffed five out of seven days a week, and added that while the department hasn’t hired anybody for the last 16 months, many firefighters retired this year. He also said that although the Minneapolis City Council adopted “standards of coverage” two years ago, the standards aren’t being met.

First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow, who attended the ANA meeting, said, “We’ve had challenges both in the fire and police departments. What we call our budgeted staffing level, and what we actually have, don’t add up. We need to get these new recruits in.”

Fruetel said that most of the firefighters who went to Iraq will be coming back in January, and the class of 28 recruits will likely produce 25 or 26 new firefighters. “I need all hands on deck. We’re going to work through these tough times. I lose sleep at night over this.”

In a later interview, Fruetel said that in addition to the firefighters in Iraq, “A lot of people are in the…reserves, on active or weekend duty. That’s when we really feel the shortage.”

Last week, he said, they were at a staffing level of 102, which is high and good, but some days it is much fewer. “We are sorely in need of more support. We’re going to continue to increase staffing. It’s not hard to find firefighters; we get 1,700 applicants a year. It’s a job a lot of folks want. People travel all over the country to take the tests, and colleges and universities have a degree program in firefighting now. National events have taken the forefront over the last couple of years, and people want to support their community. You don’t become a firefighter to become a millionaire, you want to serve.”

Fruetel said the department tried quint trucks before, when they were called combination rigs. “They allow for a lot of capability. When you arrive on the scene with them, it’s nice to have the staffing to use them. It can operate as a standard pumper, and with four or five people you can lay lines and put the ladder up.”

Clack said, however, that “We are finding they don’t work so well for us as they have in other places. Maintenance on them is much higher; they’ve tried to put too much weight on the chassis. We need to get 15 years out of them and they cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece. Ultimately, you want four people on any kind of fire truck, and specialty rescue rigs should have more than four. We don’t meet that. We’re a long ways from it. We’d have to hire 90 people to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard.”

OSHA uses NFPA standards, he added, and federal grant programs often require that departments be working toward the four-person on a truck standard. “They don’t give grants to towns that aren’t working toward that standard,” Clack added.

He said Station 15 ended up with a new quint after the 2003 city budget cuts. “The chief decided to take three fire stations, close one, 21, and put quints at the other two, 15 and 27.” (Both 21 and 27 are in South Minneapolis.) Now, however, they’ve found that while response time is “above 80 percent” (meaning, four to five firefighters on a scene within five to six minutes, 80 percent of the time) in Northeast, “particularly because Station 2 [on 13th Avenue NE] isn’t too far away,” response time in the area of 50th and Nicollet, near 21 and 27, “got much worse.”

They are talking about reopening the closed south side station next year, Clack added.

Early in 2007, staffing city-wide was higher, he said. “We started January with an average of 102 people a day. Now it’s 94 a day. We’ve lost eight people a day. We need at least 96 a day. In July, we went 20 days under 96, in August it was 15 days, in September it was 18 days, in October it was 19 days.

He said that things should look better next year, when the veterans come back and the new class graduates. “While people are in Iraq, they earn all their benefits when they’re gone and generally take time off when they come back. About 16 people left us this year for various reasons, mainly retirement. But by May, 2008, we should be over 100 a day.

“Both the police and fire departments have found this year that the amount we were appropriated has not been enough to continue certain staffing levels,” he said. “We just don’t have any money to hire people back.

“I know the people…are disappointed and worried and I am, too,” he added. “I’m worried about the whole city.”

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