Asst. Chief Cherie Penn: Budget cuts didn't cause fire fighter injuries

Asst. Chief Cherie Penn: Budget cuts didn't cause fire fighter injuries
Photo: Michael Dvorak for City Pages.

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    A few days ago, we published excerpts from a letter penned by Minneapolis fire union president Mark Lakosky, who blames budget cuts for the recent on-duty injuries of five fire fighters.

    In the letter, Lakosky details a nightmare scenario at the Walker Community Church earlier this summer, where the fire fighters found themselves trapped by 40-foot flames. They were trying to knock the fire out at its source, but no one answered their calls to charge the hose with water, so they had to crawl out underneath the fire. The problem, wrote Lakosky, was that the department is dangerously understaffed, and didn't have enough fire fighters on scene at the time.

    But Asst. Minneapolis Fire Chief Cherie Penn disputes Lakosky's claims. In a letter to City Pages, Penn says dangerous conditions -- not low staffing -- caused the injuries.

  • Here's the letter:

    Our top priority is ensuring the safety of our fire fighters and civilians in any incident. The possibility of being injured is a reality that firefighters face every day because fighting fires is extremely dangerous and unpredictable work. Unfortunately, five firefighters were injured trying to fight the fire at the Walker Church, but those injuries are not related to staffing levels.

    Firefighters at the Walker Church encountered a very large place of assembly that contained many void spaces with very limited access where the fire originated. Add into that scenario severe weather, including many lighting strikes in the area, which inhibited our ability to place firefighters on elevated aerial devices. It's also important to keep in mind that this call originated from report of a smoke alarm, not of a fire, and we dispatched a crew to that scene like we would to any smoke-alarm call.

    Once personnel on the scene found the smoke condition they requested additional resources, which is how those situations are handled. We had in excess of 50 personnel respond to the fire. Every fire is different and our crews manage the situation and call for additional resources as required in response to each situation. Those fire fighters were injured because they were working in very dangerous environment caused by the type of structure and the difficult location of the fire, while conducting interior fire ground operations.

    We are fortunate that there were not more injuries at the Walker fire, but the injuries that were sustained were not due to staffing in any way. The cause of the injuries is an extremely dangerous concealed fire, combined with very dangerous weather conditions.

    While this particular incident is in dispute, Chief John Freutel told us in an interview this year that, speaking generally, they have seen a rise in injuries as staffing levels have gone down. We also explored this in our November 2010 cover story, "Man Down." According to city data examined for the story, as fire-safety precautions have dramatically decreased the amount of fires over the years, on-the-job injuries have stayed relatively the same, or in some cases gone up.

    More Coverage:

  • City Council dumps controversial fire department board-up program
  • Minneapolis Fire Dept. board-up plan failing after six months
  • Minneapolis cuts 13 firefighters, unofficially lowers daily staffing

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