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Should Minneapolis hire more firefighters?

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Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel stands across the street from the remains of the Walker Community United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis on Monday, May 28, 2012, in south Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak presents his 2013 budget proposal Wednesday and one of today's big questions is how much he wants to spend on the city's fire department.

The city needs to hire more firefighters, say the fire chief and the president of the firefighter's union. However, the chair of the city council's budget committee said that the department is providing excellent service at its current size.

Minneapolis has reduced its firefighter force over the last decade, cutting about 90 positions — more than 18 percent — from the department since 2001.

Those cuts have caused the quality of fire service to deteriorate, said Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighter's Union Local 82.

"Our guys are showing up to work. They're doing more with less. And they're getting hurt. And response times are failing to the citizens," Lakosky said.

Response time is measured as the duration of time from when 9-11 is contacted to the emergency crew's arrival at the scene. In recent years, the Minneapolis Fire Department has averaged a response time of a little less than four minutes. In 2001, the response time was just over three and a half minutes. A city report released earlier this year showed the firefighter injury rate has increased in the last decade as well.

It's time for the city to hire more firefighters and make the department a higher priority, Lakosky said.

R.T. Rybak
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in a February 2012 file photo.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"We're 4 percent of a $1.3 billion budget. A million dollars, $2 million saves lives. Does $2 million in IT save lives," Lakosky said.

Lakosky wants Rybak to add 15 firefighters in the city's next budget. The city's finance department estimates that would cost about $1.4 million in salary and benefits.

But not everyone agrees the fire department is understaffed.

"The city's not burning down," said Betsy Hodges, who chairs the Ways & Means/Budget Committee of the Minneapolis City Council.

"I know that people are taking a look at some of the rhetoric they're hearing and being frightened that something bad is happening," Hodges said, "and they're getting great service."

Hodges argues the connection between response time, firefighter injuries and staffing levels is not so clear cut. She said the city had to reduce fire department staff over the last decade in response to cuts in state aid.

"Part of what tough times do is ask you to wring efficiencies out of the system," Hodges said. "And one of the things we found was that there were staffing models where residents could continue to get excellent service, even at a reduced workforce."

Walker Community United Methodist Church
Minneapolis firefighters watch Monday, May 28, 2012 as heavy equipment is used to tear down a wall of the Walker Community United Methodist Church in the city's Powderhorn Park neighborhood. The building was gutted by a fire the previously evening.
MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg

As evidence, Hodges refers to an external assessment of the fire department conducted this year. The city paid almost $150,000 for a consulting firm to evaluate the department's performance.

Kent Greene, vice president of the assessing firm, Emergency Services Consulting International, said the department is performing exceptionally well with the resources it has.

"They're able to get over 20 firefighters on average for every structure fire. And there are a lot of departments in the country that can't do that," Greene said.

He also praised the department's response time, but noted it does not meet a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. As for staffing levels, his report found Minneapolis has a smaller fire department than those in comparable cities. However, Greene saw no "red flags" signaling Minneapolis needs to add firefighters.

"There are many fire departments across the country that do suppression and first-response medical services with fewer [firefighters], Greene said. "There are many departments that have more firefighters. So really that's a policy decision that labor and department management and city policy makers will have to come to."

Minneapolis got a new fire chief this year, the city's fifth since 2004. John Fruetel said he would like to grow the department and increase the number of firefighters working on any given day.

At any time, 92 firefighters are on duty. Fruetel told the city council, ideally, that he'd like to have 100 firefighters on duty. More firefighters would make it easier to effectively manage multiple fires simultaneously — a difficult task under current staffing conditions, Fruetel said.

"We do a very effective job in our initial response to that first one. It's when we get to that second one — that happens quite often — that we start to get a little challenged," Fruetel said. "That's where I'd like to build the depth of our department back a little bit."

Fruetel made those comments a couple weeks ago. He declined an interview request for this story. His assistant chief said Fruetel didn't want to "get ahead of" the mayor's speech tomorrow.