Minneapolis Fire Department faces perilous future

Cuts have left MFD below industry standards

"If [Minneapolis] wants to roll the dice on this, they can, but eventually it's going to catch up with you and you're going to have a tragic accident," says Smith.

Despite Lakosky's urging, the city of Minneapolis declined to apply for the grant by the late-September deadline. The decision came at the suggestion of Fire Chief Alex Jackson, according to the mayor and councilmembers.

"It was really under [Jackson's] leadership," explains City Councilmember Cam Gordon, co-chair of the public safety committee. "There were some of us on the council that were kind of second-guessing and wondering and wanting to get details, but there wasn't enough time to really do all the analysis and question him. I guess there was enough confidence that he looked into it carefully."

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

Rybak stands behind the decision not to apply.

"I'm looking for any help we can get for replacing state aid cuts," he says, "but the SAFER grant has some strings attached that could create an even bigger problem next year."

Danger lies in a very uncertain 2011 budget. Currently, Rybak has proposed two routes to getting to 32 cuts in the fire department. Ideally, if the city receives Local Government Aid from the state, Rybak is confident that the cuts can be made solely through attrition. But if the state money doesn't come through, Rybak will have to make layoffs to reach 32.

As a condition of the federal grant, the department has to keep the firefighters hired by the SAFER money employed for at least two years. Therein lies the problem, says Rybak. The new hires would be guaranteed employment, and layoffs are determined by seniority.

"We're in sort of a catch-22," the mayor says. "We're not laying off firefighters unless the state makes its budget cuts. But if the state does make cuts, we can't guarantee the funding levels."

The grant could backfire on the department. If the city did have to lay off the new hires, it could default on the grant, says Jackson.

"You know what, I'm not going to apply for something I'm not going to use," says Jackson. "I won't do that."

Optimally, Jackson says he would like to see daily staffing levels at 114, which would man all of the city's engine rigs with four firefighters and bring the department up to the national standard. Realistically, he hopes to hold the line at 96 to 101.

The City Council will meet later this year to determine how the 32 cuts will affect the current mandate of at least 96 firefighters staffed daily, though Jackson recognizes that a cut to personnel and vacating a rig will undoubtedly hurt the performance of the department.

"That's just mathematics," says Jackson. "I have 19 stations, 29 rigs. If I have 19 stations and 20 rigs, the sheer math will tell you that it's going to affect my response time."

In terms of firefighter safety, Jackson isn't convinced it's become more dangerous to be a Minneapolis firefighter. As staffing levels decrease, Jackson says, it falls on the firefighters to make smarter decisions.

"I will tell you my belief," says Jackson. "We are in an inherently dangerous occupation. It's always ranked as either the most hazardous or right up there, and it's certainly one of the most stressful occupations.

"Right now, we have the luxury of being a very aggressive fire department, but as you get smaller, you will lose that. You're going to have to be wiser about decisions that you would make as far as aggressiveness goes."

The city will likely apply for the SAFER grant next year, says Rybak. In the meantime, the city has other plans for the fire department.

As of October 1, the fire department is in charge of citywide board-ups as a way to earn extra revenue. Board-ups are exactly what they sound like—any time a door or a window needs to be boarded, the responsibility now falls to the on-duty firefighters.

There are two kinds of board-ups the department is required to perform: emergency and non-emergency. In emergency board-ups—windows broken out in a fire or doors broken down in a police raid—firefighters are required to be on scene within 30 minutes. For non-emergency jobs, such as foreclosed houses, the firefighters have 72 hours to do the work.

When this plan was originally conceived two years ago, the council estimated it would earn the fire department $400,000. But that number may be drastically inflated by today's standards.

Two years ago, during the foreclosure crisis, the board-up business was booming. Now that foreclosures have slowed, there aren't nearly as many houses to be boarded, explains Bert Castrejon, who contracted with the city for board-ups before the duty was handed to the fire department.

Since 2008, Castrejon has had to downsize his staff from two crews to only one and has seen a considerable decrease in revenue, he says. In the first nine months of the year, he made less than one-third of what he was making two years ago.

"I don't think we made $100,000," says Castrejon. "Maybe around there somewhere."

Castrejon predicts the fire department will make nowhere near the projected $400,000, "unless those foreclosures start picking up again."

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