A Minneapolis firefighter is still hospitalized with injuries she sustained battling a church fire two weeks ago. Four other firefighters were also injured, and two of them will testify at the Capitol later this week during a hearing on budget cuts and firefighter injuries.
Over the last several years, Minneapolis firefighter injuries have been rising as the number of firefighters has been shrinking.
On May 27, Minneapolis firefighters were called to the Walker Community United Methodist Church in the Powderhorn neighborhood. The chatter between firefighters on the scene was recorded and published on the Internet.
According to the fire department's incident report, five firefighters on the third floor of the church were burned by a 'flashover' or a sudden burst of flames. The report says the firefighters had to crawl through the fire to escape the burning church.
Since 2003, the number of injuries sustained by Minneapolis firefighters has been gradually going up. The number of fires has not increased over the years, but the number of firefighters has decreased.
According to a report released by the city earlier this year, 189 firefighters were injured in 2003. That number climbed to 270 in 2007. Since then annual injury totals have remained higher than the number of injuries in 2003.
Most firefighter injuries are not from burns, said Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel. They come from muscle sprains and strains that come as the result of a fall or from lifting heavy equipment.
Injuries are not only painful, they are expensive, Fruetel says, and medical treatment costs for these injuries are going up 20 percent a year.
"But the biggest factor there is the way we look at lost days. And that has trended up quite a bit," Fruetel said.
The number of firefighter work days lost due to injury has more than tripled, from 220 days in 2009 to 754 in 2011, Fruetel said. He said that means firefighters have sustained more serious injuries in the last few years.
That also means the department has had to pay more in overtime to replace injured firefighters. Last year, overtime costs grew to more than $1 million — nearly double the total overtime in 2008. Juggling personnel is one of his biggest challenges, Fruetel said.
"Anytime we start losing our positions and losing the number of bodies, it's very difficult to complete the overall mission of our department."
Over the last several years, the department has lost staff due to retirements and layoffs. The department has about 20 fewer firefighters than it had six years ago. However, Minneapolis was recently awarded a federal grant that will allow the department to rehire six firefighters who were laid off because of budget cuts.
Fruetel and the firefighters union say staff cuts can increase the risk of injury.
Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighter's Union Local 82, says firefighters have a few dozen tasks to complete as soon as they arrive at the scene of a fire. And when firefighters ride three to a truck instead of four, Lakosky says, there aren't as many people to complete the tasks.
“Anytime we start losing our positions and losing the number of bodies, it's very difficult to complete the overall mission of our department.”Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel
"People are being forced to do more with less," he said. "For example, grabbing more equipment than they need. Maybe searching areas by themself or getting too far from their partner if they have one."
Lakosky blames the city's elected officials for cutting the department's budget. He says he understands the need for budget cuts in tough financial times. But he argues the fire department is unique.
"In my opinion and many others there's a couple departments — fire and police — when you try to streamline fire and police, you're not really streamlining," Lakosky said. "You might be reducing their staff and their payroll. But the problem is, service levels fail. You cut the fire department — you don't get better, you don't save money."
SAFETY RISK EXTENDS BEYOND DEPARTMENT
Staff cuts have also led to slower response times to emergency calls of all kinds, Lakosky said. He says that also puts citizens at risk.
The Minneapolis Fire Department is not the only fire service to deal with staff cuts and increased injuries.
Dr. Lori Moore of the International Association of Firefighters' national office said the union has received anecdotal evidence from members across the country that show a relationship between staff cuts and safety risks. Moore says the union's research has found a link between smaller crew sizes and injuries.
The national standard for fire crew size is four to a truck, she said.
"If you begin to go beneath that, what we have again, by consensus and by injury data through the years, we can correlate that a reduction in that crew size in that low hazard environment will correlate with an increase in injury and possibly death," Moore said. "Certainly death to not only firefighters, but civilians."
The number of civilian deaths and injuries from fires in Minneapolis has fluctuated over the last decade. The most civilian deaths occurred in 2010 when 13 people died in fires.
Later this week, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, will discuss in a hearing at the Capitol how cuts to the Minneapolis fire department have affected firefighter safety. Democrats in the Legislature say state aid cuts to cities in recent years are affecting basic services. But Republican leaders have argued that local governments should find places to cut spending other than police and fire.