Minneapolis Fire Department faces perilous future

Cuts have left MFD below industry standards

So they called Swaggert.

Swaggert's crew mans a heavy-duty search-and-rescue rig called Rescue 1. Rescue 1 is the only rig in the city that carries equipment for certain extreme rescue scenarios: saws that can cut through steel, large air tanks with long hoses, heavy-lifting equipment, advanced cliff-repelling tools. Within the department, other firefighters rib the Rescue 1 crew's rare uses of the rig—"More like Rescue none," some joke—but for those in need, Rescue 1 can mean the difference between life and death.

When Rescue 1 arrived on the scene of the Northeast accident, it looked like the aftermath of a chase sequence in an action movie. Black rubber burned off the tires marked an entire city block leading up to the vehicle, which had taken the shape of a horseshoe. The impact of the crash had twisted the front passenger's seat behind the driver's seat, pinning two people sitting in the back at the ankles. And they were the lucky ones—the 14-year-old riding shotgun was already dead. The driver would be dead in a few hours.

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

Time was of the essence, but the crash had deformed the car so dramatically that the risk of accidentally cutting one of the victims was high. The firefighters spent two hours carefully removing small pieces of the vehicle with a more powerful version of the Jaws of Life, which no other rig in the city carries.

"We just kept nibbling it off," says Swaggert. "There was no other way to do it."

One of the injured teens screamed and swore for the firefighters to hurry up until a doctor on scene sedated him. It wasn't until firefighters pulled him out of the car that they realized a metal rod had been impaling his foot the whole time.

Both teenagers in the backseat lived. Without Rescue 1, it could have been a lot worse, says firefighter John Eland, who assisted in the rescue.

"I don't want to say they would have died, because maybe they wouldn't have," says Eland. "But their time stuck there would have been prolonged."

Rescue 1 is another casualty of budget cuts. Come January 2011, it will no longer be in service. Though no firefighters are assigned to the rig come next year, it will not be shut down entirely. Instead, it will be parked at a station somewhere in the city. If needed, a crew will have to travel to the rig and then drive it to the scene of the call.

This plan might sound better in theory than in practice, says Eland, who has been assigned to Rescue 1 for years.

"That piece of apparatus has the highest learner's curve of any piece of apparatus in the city," says Eland. "If you want help, you want help now. You don't want to wait for the Minneapolis Fire Department to get its shit together."

Mark Lakosky knows how the city could help solve the fire department's budget problems.

Shortly after Rybak released his 2011 budget plan, Lakosky, president of the firefighters union, traveled to City Hall several times weekly to meet with the mayor and members of the City Council, urging them to apply for the SAFER grant. SAFER(Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) is a federal grant program facilitated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that allocates millions each year to fire departments that aren't meeting industry standards.

If approved, the department could potentially hire back the 18 firefighters who have been laid off since 2008 and pay their salaries for two years, says Lakosky. Eighteen more firefighters could make all the difference in the performance of the department.

"My safety and firefighters' safety relative to staffing levels is directly relative to the response we give," says Lakosky. "It's directly relative to citizens' safety. You may never have to use it. Thirty-six thousand people called the fire department last year for EMS or fire. Thirty-six thousand. So it might not happen tonight, but when it does, don't you want the most possible resources that you expect to show up?"

Though applying for the SAFER grant appeared on an early draft of the city's 2011 budget, it disappeared this fall. As the deadline approached in September, Lakosky became determined to convince the city to at least apply, even if they ultimately decided to turn down the money.

"If it comes out at the end of December when you firm up that budget and you vote and you can't use it, you give it back," says Lakosky. "No penalties. No fines. No hard feelings. They're giving you a couple million dollars to set on the table, to look at as an option to hold the line on staffing levels."

To illustrate the potential benefit of the grant, Lakosky points just across the Mississippi River. SAFER approved the St. Paul Fire Department's application in 2009, earning it $2 million over five years that was used to hire 18 firefighters and add two new ambulances to the fleet.

"I think the city of St. Paul's City Council and mayor understand the importance of public safety," says Mike Smith, St. Paul Fire Department union president.

By most standards, St. Paul's is a superior department to Minneapolis's. The department staffs 117 firefighters as a daily average, 21 more than Minneapolis. The engine rigs are all staffed with the industry-standard four firefighters. The department faces no position cuts in this year's budget.

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