Looking at the recruitment and retirement forecast, one Anoka County fire chief realized he had a problem and after conferring with his fellow fire chiefs around the county, Centennial Fire Chief Jerry Streich realized all of the departments shared the problem.
The research for the solution led to the creation of the Anoka County Fire Academy.
When he started as the Centennial chief five years ago, Streich found he had a hard time finding new firefighters and his department could be facing a serious shortage with retirements coming up.
He surveyed the 15 fire chiefs covering the 22 Anoka County cities and found that over the next four years, 236 new firefighters would be needed to keep the departments at their current staffing levels, Streich said.
At the time of the survey, only the Andover Fire Department was fully staffed, he said.
The biggest issue was finding training for the new recruits, who would have to go to the technical colleges in Brooklyn Park or Eden Prairie or have a private educator come to the department, but there would need to be at least 10 people for the class, Streich said.
Although the departments joined forces to get enough students for the private class, it was not always enough.
“We have lost people over the years because sometimes it is year and half before we could offer classes,” said Chief Nyle Zikmund, Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department.
To retain its new recruits, the Centennial Fire Department started training its own firefighters in 2009 with Linwood and Ramsey both sending people to the classes.
The training eventually expanded and became the twice-a-year fire academy, which graduated its first class in February.
The academy received a $1.57 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Staffing Adequate Fire Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in August 2012.
The grant fully funds the academy for the next four years, including medical screening and equipment, said Streich.
It also includes a $500 bonus for the academy graduates if they stay with their departments for a year, he said.
The cities needed to pay for the books, which will be reused by future classes, said Coon Rapids Fire Capt. Tim Gilsrud, the academy’s director of operations.
The first Anoka County Fire Academy class of 29 students arrived at the SBM station, located in Blaine, last summer.
The 43 classes provided by the academy cover the college courses for Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2, plus more, Gilsrud said.
The academy classes include five Anoka County-specific training courses and a Hazmat course, he said.
During the training, the new firefighters toured Anoka County Central Communications to see the dispatch operations and learned how the North Metro Chemical Assessment Team responds to hazardous material calls as well as how the Anoka County Fire Investigation Team works, Gilsrud said.
The majority of the academy instructors are from area fire departments, he said.
As the new firefighters are learning they are building relationships across city borders, which helps when there is a need to respond to fires in other cities, Gilsrud said.
It helps that the firefighters have the same training when working together at the scene of a fire, he said.
“This type of training makes sense,” said Harlan Lundstrom, assistant SBM fire chief and academy administration director.
There are a lot of benefits from offering the academy, including the networking, he said.
“We can do it cheaper than the technical colleges (because of the federal grant),” Lundstrom said.
It costs about $18,000 for Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 courses at the colleges, Gilsrud said.
In addition, providing the training in the county eliminates the need for people to travel outside the county for training, Lundstrom said.
While SBM typically had enough recruits, the academy provides an efficient training, said Zikmund.
“We have done an in-house class for three or four (recruits), but it is not efficient,” he said.
The academy starting classes in January and July gives fire departments a predictable training schedule, said Zikmund, who is also an academy instructor.
The additional training provided by the academy helps broaden the new firefighters’ exposure and in-depth understanding of what they are getting into, he said.
Even after the grant runs out, Zikmund said the academy will continue.
The departments would do well to fund the academy because the departments are doing more mutual aid and it is cheaper than sending the firefighters off to the technical colleges or teaching them at the individual department level, he said.
While each department has a lot of talent, the academy brings all of those the talents together, Zikmund said.
Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said he is very pleased with the academy.
Coon Rapids was looking at a big staffing hit and the academy and the FEMA grant were very helpful in addressing that, he said.
Coon Rapids recruits were required to complete Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 before the city would hire them, according to Piper.
With the academy and the grant, the city will hire a recruit without the training and send them to the academy, he said.
Working together with people from the other departments, the recruits also build camaraderie sooner in their career, Piper said.
With the increased mutual aid, that camaraderie is important, said Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler.
Everyone is being trained in the same techniques, learning the Anoka County version of communications and exposure to how each department does things, he said.
That knowledge helps the new firefighters make a smoother transition from the classroom to fire service, Kapler said.
For new firefighters, like Hai Tieu of Centerville, the academy reduces the time they have to wait for a class.
Before the academy, the fire departments had to wait to have enough people to fill the class, said Tieu, the president for the first academy class.
And the classes offered by the technical colleges only focused on the state requirements, Tieu said.
During the academy training, the firefighters learn how each fire department operates as well as the county dispatch and the fire investigation team, he said.
It was great taking classes with firefighters from others cities, Tieu said.
They left as friends and they will have the ability to work well together, he said.
Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]