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Brainerd poised to eliminate full-time firefighter jobs

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A fight is brewing over how to structure the fire department in Brainerd, where the city council could vote as early as Monday to eliminate its full-time firefighter positions.

  Brainerd's Fire Department is currently staffed by five full-time equipment operators and 38 paid on-call firefighters. 

But the city says it can no longer afford that model. 

"The essential problem is costs exceeding existing revenues," said Brainerd City Administrator Jim Thoreen. "That's the bottom line."

City staff estimate moving to a paid on-call department, headed by a full-time fire chief and deputy chief, could save $265,000 a year. 

Thoreen says that model works for comparably sized cities like Fergus Falls and Hutchinson.

"Their operations are effective, they're more cost efficient than ours has been, and they're completely satisfied with their level of service," Thoreen said.

The Minnesota Professional Firefighters disagree. The union says other departments in the state are hiring more full-time firefighters. They say the change would lead to delays in response time.

If Brainerd implements the change, on-call firefighters would first have to travel to the station to pick up the fire engine when responding to an emergency, said Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Firefighters. 

"The problem with this is that it leads to great delays in response time," he said. "You could easily double or triple your response time, and in fire service, seconds matter."

Such a change, he said, would be "detrimental to the safety of the citizens of Brainerd." 

Parsons points to cities like Albert Lea and Bemidji, with similar populations to Brainerd, that employ more full-time firefighters, and spend a greater percentage of their city budget on fire services.