Minneapolis Fire Department faces perilous future

Cuts have left MFD below industry standards

"It doesn't really feel like the City Council's behind this department," says a firefighter, one of many who wouldn't give his name, as speaking to the press is against department policy. "Every morning we come in here and it feels like we're getting shit on."

On a spring morning in 2003, the Minneapolis Fire Department responded to a house fire on the corner of 48th Street and York Avenue South.

The first engine rigs to arrive were on the scene in just minutes. But the nearest ladder rig had to drive all the way from 28th Street and Blaisdell Avenue, more than 10 minutes away.

Reid Wilson and Mark Lakosky pushed for Minneapolis to apply for the SAFER grant, but city officials declined
Michael Dvorak
Reid Wilson and Mark Lakosky pushed for Minneapolis to apply for the SAFER grant, but city officials declined
Rescue 1 is the only rig to carry certain specialized search-and-rescue tools. As of January, it will be unmanned.
Michael Dvorak
Rescue 1 is the only rig to carry certain specialized search-and-rescue tools. As of January, it will be unmanned.

When the ladder rig finally arrived, the firefighters on scene were still trying to secure the hose. A man in the front yard screamed that his mom was stuck inside the house.

Firefighters from the ladder rig and a specialized rescue rig that arrived at the same time rushed into the burning building. After a few minutes of blindly searching through thick smoke, they found Pearl Gallagher collapsed in the kitchen, not breathing.

The firefighters carried her outside, where an EMT crew went to work on the 70-year-old woman. Miraculously, rescue workers managed to revive Gallagher. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, where she was placed in a hyperbaric chamber.

Four days later, she was pronounced dead.

Until just a month earlier, a ladder rig had been stationed only three miles from Gallagher's home. It had been decomissioned due to budget cuts to the fire department.

No one can say for sure that anything would have gone differently if the ladder had to travel only a few miles, but even seven years later some still wonder.

"If we would have had a rig possibly closer, or if we would have had another rig there looking for that search, maybe we would have gotten there earlier," says a firefighter who was on scene that day. "Who knows?"

Since 2003, the fire department has consistently failed to meet city goals for response time. The city aspires to have first responders on the scene of an emergency within five minutes or less for at least 90 percent of calls. This has never been achieved in the past seven years, according to city statistics.

Minneapolis also aims for at least 14 firefighters to be on the scene of a structure fire in nine minutes or less 90 percent of the time. The city failed to complete this goal three of the past seven years.

Failing in the latter response-time goal can be attributed to low personnel. Because firefighters are riding three to some rigs instead of four, it takes more to bring the same amount of manpower to the scene.

Rybak recognizes that the statistics are grim, but argues that he is just working within the limits of Pawlenty-era cuts.

"Considering what we've had to do, I'm proud of the work the city and the firefighters have been doing," says Rybak. "We're going to do our best to get as many resources as we can get to them, but the sad fact and reality is, when you make massive cuts, there's consequences to them."

After 32 years in the Minneapolis Fire Department, Pat Swaggert's mind has become a library of strange and terrible events. He recalls many with impressive accuracy—down to the year, date, and hour of the call.

"Some of the guys call me Rain Man," Swaggert jokes.

There was the time he responded to five shootings in a single day in 1997: One of the victims had been shot through the rectum and had a bullet lodged in his stomach. Or the five-alarm fire in 1982 where Northwest Bank burned from the inside out for three days straight.

Then there was the time he responded to a "shortness of breath" call in 1987, which is basically the "miscellaneous" call code. His crew burst into a bathroom splattered with blood to find a lifeless man slumped forward on the toilet. A syringe, knife, and gun sat on the floor in front of him.

When they tried to move the body, the pinhole eyes of what they thought was a corpse flashed open. Before passing out, the man had sawed off his own penis, dropped it in the toilet, and attempted to stitch up the wound. The needle was still stuck through the remains of his genitals.

After decades on the job, Swaggert has become accustomed to such grisly tableaus. But the death of a kid still haunts him and his crew.

It was this past July 29 at 4 a.m. when the call came. Five teenagers—ages 13 to 17—had taken a parent's car on an early-morning joyride. The driver lost control of the vehicle at more than 100 mph around 29th Avenue and McKinley Street Northeast and smashed into a utility pole.

The northeast Minneapolis intersection is not anywhere near Swaggert's firehouse; his crew operates out of Station Six in south Minneapolis, adjacent to the Convention Center. A crew from a nearby station had arrived on the scene a half-hour earlier. But when they tried to cut the kids out of the car, their hydraulic line broke.

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