Four cities in northern Anoka County are moving toward a tighter partnership when it comes to fire departments.
Whether this leads to Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis having one fire department or just more joint efforts in equipment purchases and training has yet to be determined, sources said.
“The attraction has been having discussions on how we can build off our partnerships and expand them to provide service to residents in a more efficient way,” Ramsey Mayor Sarah Strommen said.
The city councils for these communities individually approved resolutions last month to continue working together on finding solutions that work for everyone. The first phase included a $3,277 study by Emergency Services Consulting International of Wilsonville, Ore., for which Ramsey paid over because cost sharing was based on population.
Oak Grove was part of the process at this time and had to chip in $589 as the second largest of the five communities, but chose to not be officially involved in this second phase despite no additional consultant costs because the council had a different philosophical approach than the other four communities.
Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin believes Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis are moving down the path of just having one fire department, and Oak Grove did not see any evidence that it would save any money by having one large fire district as opposed to the mutual aid response agreements already in place.
“I’m not against looking at ways to reduce costs to maximize essential services, but with the way the system is set up, it’s a working relationship I feel is working well right now,” Korin said.
Ramsey is already reimbursed for providing fire protection in Nowthen and for Chief Dean Kapler being the chief for the St. Francis Fire Department, which still has its own administrative personnel and firefighters.
The consultant said Bethel would be the next logical partner if these three communities would move their working relationship to the next level because it is surrounded on three sides by St. Francis.
St. Francis Mayor Jerry Tveit believes it could be efficient for there to be one fire department and he said there was no harm in the four cities discussing it, but his gut feeling is it will not happen and the end result will be a closer working relationship between the departments.
“What I see is we will have a joint powers agreement between all four cities and maybe utilize equipment back and forth but the fire departments will still be accountable to our own cities and our own city councils,” Tveit said.
Although fire departments have mutual aid agreements in place in case there is a large accident or house fire, Tveit said a joint department means the four city councils would each lose a little control and Tveit said councils like having the control because their members are elected to represent their citizens.
With a fire chief, fire marshal and administrative assistant, Ramsey is the only department of the five cities to have career personnel. The other departments, besides Nowthen, have paid on-call, in other words volunteer, administrative and support personnel. All five cities have volunteer firefighters.
Besides responding to fires, these departments are responsible for educating the public about fire safety and conducting building inspections to make sure fire codes are being met. Many hours are also spent training firefighters.
Strommen said people have come in with open minds and the study “laid a foundation for getting the answers” to many questions people already have. She does not feel the purpose of the study was to get a specific recommendation from the consultant.
The consultant provided a range of options that did not involve consolidation of all departments into one.
A few options are developing a regional equipment replacement plan, regional training program, a shared health and safety program, combining administrative and support services, and enhanced mutual aid or automatic aid agreements.
“The purpose of the consultant wasn’t to say this is what you should do,” Tveit said. “The purpose of the consultant was to say this is what your options are.”
The fire district committee of 20 people last met in late June to review the consultant’s report and is scheduled to meet again in September, Strommen said. When and how resident input is sought has not been laid out yet. Tveit assumes St. Francis will have a town hall meeting.
Korin said Oak Grove was not closing the door on finding more ways to partner with these four cities for shared services such as training of firefighters. Oak Grove already works with other communities from time to time for equipment purchases.
Overview of fire departments
The consultant study highlighted each fire department.
Bethel has one of the oldest fire departments in Minnesota and it covers 0.97 square miles and a population of 466. The Bethel Fire Department has one fire station, two fire engines, one water tanker, one vehicle that can fight grass fires and utility vehicle. It has seven firefighters, an assistant chief, captain and two lieutenants, all who are paid on-call.
Although Nowthen’s 35.1 square miles and 4,443 people are covered by the Ramsey Fire Department, Nowthen owns its own fire station, a fire engine, tanker and grass unit. The two cities reimburse each other when its personnel or vehicles are needed to respond to an incident in the other community.
Oak Grove is the same geographical size as Nowthen, but has 8,031 people. It has two fire stations, two engines, two tankers, one rescue vehicle, two grass units and several ancillary vehicles.
Oak Grove’s paid on-call staff of 32 includes 22 firefighters, a fire chief, assistant chief, two captains, five lieutenants and one administrative assistant.
Ramsey has the highest population density by far of the five communities with 23,668 people living in 29.7 square miles. It operates from two fire stations within its borders and one in Nowthen. Its fleet, including vehicles based at the Nowthen station, comprises three engines, two tankers, one aerial ladder truck, two rescue vehicles, one grass unit, one boat and several ancillary vehicles.
Ramsey has 54 people on-staff, including paid on-call personnel of 43 firefighters, two assistant chiefs, three captains, three lieutenants and one training officer. It also has the full-time fire chief, fire marshal and a part-time administrative assistant.
St. Francis has 23.7 square miles and 7,218 people. It has one fire station, two engines, two tankers, one rescue vehicle and two grass units as well as 23 paid on-call staff including 15 firefighters, one captain, four lieutenants, one training officer and one inspector.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]