Volunteer firefighting rooted in service to local communities

By Theresa Malloy
ECM Sun Newspapers

As fire departments across the state struggle with budget issues and recruitment and retention shortfalls, the lingering question is what the future of firefighting will look like in Minnesota.

Ramsey firefighters work on putting out a fire at a trailer in the Oak Terrace Mobile Home Park Feb. 15, 2013 File photo by Eric Hagen
Ramsey firefighters work on putting out a fire at a trailer in the Oak Terrace Mobile Home Park Feb. 15, 2013 File photo by Eric Hagen

Nationally Minnesota ranks 47th in fire investment, even though the state is 21st in population and 20th in land mass, Eden Prairie Fire Chief Greg Esbensen said.

“Fire departments are going to have to take a hard look at customer service,” Dayton Fire Chief Jason Mickelson said. “And as demand increases and staffing decreases, we will have to look at other options like daytime staffing or city employees trained as firefighters.”

Municipal fire departments are now looking for creative ways to staff, regulate costs and work with neighboring cities.

In Minnetrista, homeowners who need the assistance of the fire department for structure fires are now billed a flat fee of $500 by the city. The city contracts with two neighboring fire departments: St. Bonifacius and Mound. The fee would likely be covered by the property owner’s home insurance.

The Maple Grove Fire Department also bills for false alarms.

Other departments have tried to work together. Loretto Fire Department Chief Jeff Leuer said his department and the Hamel Fire Department worked in unison to buy tanker trucks to help save money. However, when the two departments talked about consolidating fire services, the cities could not agree on how the department would look.

Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson said one of the biggest obstacles facing six Lake Minnetonka departments that are brainstorming shared service options is maintaining each department’s identity.

“Fire departments are afraid they’ll lose their identity, logo and history,” he said.

The other huge disparity is pensions, Pederson said, because some departments offer a higher rate per call, while others invest that money into a higher pension plan.

Excelsior Fire District Chief Scott Gerber said identity is generally rooted in society. He said out of the 785 departments in Minnesota, each one operates a little differently because it’s hard to have one model fill all the “community needs and expectations.”

He likens this to the Fire Department of New York City, which is one of the nation’s largest departments.

“It’s one department, but all the stations have their own identities,” he said.

The Excelsior Fire District operates through a joint powers agreement between the cities of Deephaven, Excelsior, Shorewood, Greenwood and Tonka Bay. Almost 15 years ago, the communities made the switch to operate together.

“The face of firefighting has changed,” Pederson said. Across departments, firefighters are responding to fewer fire calls and ending up at more medical calls or other less dire calls, such as false alarms.

To alleviate the need for all firefighters to be paged for minor calls, some departments have employed a duty crew program. Plymouth has a four-crew team that is ready to answer to fire and emergency calls from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

“These positions offer the predictability of a part-time job while providing the community with readily available firefighters during the hours a majority of emergencies occur,” the city’s website states.

Some chiefs, however, contend that the volunteer model is still viable.

Andover Fire Chief Jerry Streich
Andover Fire Chief Jerry Streich

“I personally think this (volunteer) model can continue,” Andover Fire Chief Jerry Streich said. “It’s a city service. You just have to look at what level of service you want to provide.”

Fire departments already are actively working together. A mutual aid system through the county automatically dispatches nearby departments to provide aid and assistance for certain calls.

“The box alarm is a pretty significant change and a terrific way for local government to share resources,” said Chanhassen Fire Chief John Wolff.

On Feb. 27, 2014, when the Eden Prairie Fire Department was called to a house fire, an Eden Prairie duty crew responded first along with the fire chief. Other crews came from Minnetonka, Chanhassen and Edina to help extinguish the fire. Wolff said, years ago, this would have been handled by one department, but now the departments are able to respond and work together.

Career firefighters

Pederson said the national trend is for fire departments to move toward more full-time firefighters.

“I don’t think we’re there yet, but it’s coming,” he said.

Leuer agreed.

“I see it coming sooner or later,” he said. “It is just a reality. Cities are going to have to deal with less and less of a pool of people available.”

“Everyone wants to be career,” Esbensen said, noting that these positions draw 50 applicants for every open position, as opposed to volunteer positions that can remain open for months.

Hennepin County Technical College is also starting to see more students looking at firefighting career options in its fire protection program. Mike Colestock, HCTC associate dean of public and emergency services careers, said there has been a general increase in firefighters’ desire to get more education. While some students are sent to HCTC for basic certification by their departments, others are classified as “nonaffiliated,” or are not committed to a department.

Colestock said these students could be more attractive to potential employers because “they have everything the chief is going to want.” While some in-house training would have to be done, candidates will come to fire departments with their own training.

Colestock said the nonaffiliated students tend to be under 30. This is the students’ “first taste of firefighting.” However, the associate degree in fire science technology tends to attract older students, sometimes career firefighters, Colestock said, who “mentally have made the commitment and goal” to seek this out as a long-term profession.

What’s evident is the students’ dedication to community service, Colestock said.

“Nobody goes in thinking they’re going to get rich,” Colestock said. “All (firefighters) want to help others. It’s duty, pride, commitment and integrity that is tangible.”

Eagan is one of those cities that employs some full-time firefighters.

The Eagan Fire Department has 83 paid-on-call volunteer firefighters and four full-time firefighters: the chief, deputy chief, fire marshal and inspector.

The department recently hired five additional full-time firefighters, funded through a grant, to close the gap in its volunteer force so that it can better staff its stations during peak weekday hours and offer educational and prevention programs during the week.

Costs to employ four full-time firefighters and one captain will be paid for two years with a federal grant of $871,000. The grant was given to the city in January by Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, a federal program that provides funding to fire departments and volunteer firefighting organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained emergency responders.

“We always take great pride in being part of the community. If we are doing our job as best we can, we can prevent the calls in the first place,” Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott said.

There are no plans to hire any additional full-time firefighters.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be a full-time department,” Scott said.

Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler said firefighting is “very rewarding” and the people who volunteer want to serve the community and get involved.

Several fire chiefs noted that community service and volunteerism are at the core of fire departments, regardless of what the future will hold.

Editors Adam Gruenewald, Jessica Harper, Sue Van Cleaf, Jeff Hage and Eric Hagen contributed to this report.