Minneapolis Fire Department faces perilous future

Cuts have left MFD below industry standards

The first rigs pulled up to McMahon's Irish Pub at 6:02 a.m. It's still unclear how and when the fire started, but by the time the engines arrived that April 2 morning, flames were already pouring out of the four windows of the second-story apartments.

The first companies to the scene rushed to secure the hose to a hydrant in front of the building. The structure had already suffered severe fire and smoke damage, but firefighters hoped something could still be done for the people who had not made it out.

"Looks like we need to gain entry right away," a firefighter reported over the radio. "We do see folks on the second floor. The second floor is occupied."

Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Thirty-two firefighter positions and a heavy-rescue rig are casualties of budget cuts
Michael Dvorak
Thirty-two firefighter positions and a heavy-rescue rig are casualties of budget cuts

Around 6:15, six firefighters combed the second-story apartments, crawling through billowing smoke and flames in search of survivors.

Above them, the dead space in the ceiling heated to a dangerous temperature. Smoke and gas from the burned materials heaved in and out of the apartment hallway and through the back door, as if the building were breathing. The experienced firefighters knew what would come next, and they didn't want to be inside when it happened.

Below them, the chief on scene called in a third alarm. More firefighters from the engine companies tried to hold off the fire to give the search-and-rescue team more time.

"Hold the fire," commanded the deputy. "Hold the fire from spreading to the east until the primary search is conducted on the second floor."

Just after the rescue team decided it was time to evacuate, one of them stumbled into a solid object. It was a body.

"We've got a victim on the second floor here," he called over the radio. "Ambulance out to the C-side."

Several of the firefighters picked the woman up by her arms and legs and together carried her toward the back door. As they stepped out, the building suddenly inhaled a gust of air, introducing oxygen to the ceiling—the magic ingredient. Fire experts call it a backdraft.

A burst of intense heat and a flash of orange overcame the firefighters. When they could see again, two had been launched onto the outdoor porch. One looked down to see his helmet laying on the asphalt parking lot a floor down. If not for the railing, the fall could have killed him.

The woman, they later found out, had died before they found her. Based on the high carbon monoxide levels discovered later in the bodies, they'd all likely died long before firefighters were even called.

The firefighters say they are lucky to have survived the explosion. But many in the department feel the city has relied on luck for too long.

After years of cuts, many firefighters say that an already dangerous job has become perilous. Up until a few years ago, it was standard practice to cut open the roof on burning structures—like the building that housed McMahon's—to prevent a backdraft and a similar phenomenon called a flashover. The once-routine protocol has been all but abandoned in Minneapolis as a result of having to make due with a smaller staff, says Capt. Pat Swaggert, one of the men inside McMahon's during the explosion.

Since Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak announced budget proposals that will mean even more cuts, many in the department have lost faith that the city has their best interests in mind.

"Morale's down," says Swaggert. "The mood is that the city's a bunch of cynics. They don't know what we do and they don't care."

Rybak's 2011 budget proposal calls for the fire department to shed at least 32 positions. How those cuts will be achieved is still to be determined.

The mayor acknowledges that personnel cuts are a dangerous problem in the department, but maintains that he is doing the best he can after years of massive cuts to state-allocated money by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"Nobody needs to prove to me that we need more resources in the fire department," says Rybak. "We do. We also need more resources in police and every other part of the city, and we need lower property taxes. And my job is to make those tough decisions...but there is no free lunch when we face these massive cuts."

Since Rybak took office in 2002, the Minneapolis Fire Department has seen major changes to day-to-day operations. Most notable is that engine rigs now are more commonly manned by only three firefighters—one fewer than what national standards define as the safe minimum.

As a result, firefighters spend five minutes longer at a fire, according to a study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This means firefighters spend more time exposed to dangerous conditions.

As fire-safety standards have dramatically decreased the number of fires in Minneapolis over the past decade, the amount of on-the-job injuries for firefighters has stayed relatively the same or, in some cases, gone up. In 2009, firefighters reported 16 percent more injuries than in 2003, a year when the department responded to 793 more fires, according to city records.

For firefighters around the city, dire news handed down from above has become the norm. Rising sentiment in firehouses all over Minneapolis is that the city has continued to favor political posturing over the safety of the department and the public.

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