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
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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

Many firefighters see the board-ups as just another time-suck that will spread the already stretched department even thinner. One firefighter says he missed three calls while tied up doing board-ups, meaning the emergency was passed off to the next closest station.

"So they're taking our staffing away, but they're doing it in very stealth ways," says Reid Wilson, firefighters union vice president. "This whole board-up program that's coming is going to pull an entire truck company out of service for the time they're going to have to do that board-up, and we're already short truck companies."

 

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in October, a crew sits around a table at a Minneapolis fire station preparing lunch.

They are still waiting to see how the 32 pending cuts will affect them. If the department does have to make layoffs, the least tenured will be the first to go, meaning they might not have jobs come January.

Some firefighters follow the news more closely than others, but the sentiment toward the city is pretty much the same across the table.

"I can see how [Rybak's] done a lot for the city and done a lot for our national image," says one firefighter. "But if you've been around here like with me, you see how much of a shoestring we really are."

Suddenly, an alarm rings in over the loudspeaker.

Within a matter of seconds, lunch is abandoned on the table, and the rigs are pulling out into the street on the way to a call.

Lakosky says he fears what tragic accident will have to happen before the city starts listening to the warnings of the firefighters on the front lines. Until then, he and other firefighters will continue to make due with less than what they need.

"The spin is, 'Your safety is up to you,'" says Lakosky. "Well, you know what? If the fire's rolling and they're yelling they think some kids are in there, you go. You're going to make it work. I'm not waiting for another rig or whatever; you're going to go. And that just is what it is. We aren't people that don't go." 

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