Burnt Out

He didn't start the fire: Budget cuts have forced Forte to scramble for cash
Jana Freiband

If you attend an event at the Minneapolis Convention Center, you might see one or more Minneapolis firefighters among the milling crowd. They're there, as you might expect, to respond to heart attacks and other medical emergencies. In fact, since cuts in state aid slashed the city's budget last year, the Minneapolis Fire Department has turned to providing emergency medical services as a lucrative sideline venture--at the cost, some firefighters say, of adequately staffing the city's fire stations and trucks.

"Staffing is so low right now we're in a position where if we have two big fires in the city, basically we're exhausted," says one disillusioned downtown firefighter. "And here he [MFD Chief Rocco Forte] is pulling people off rigs to walk the floor at the Home and Garden Show?"

"Morale is at an all-time low," concurs another Minneapolis firefighter, an 18-year veteran of the department. "There's just a huge lack of trust. Everyone is wondering whether we're going to be sacrificial lambs to balance the budget. We're already riding rigs short. I don't know if people know they're paying their taxpayer dollars for firefighters to be out on rigs, and they're actually at the Convention Center."

The Convention Center deal looks like fuzzy accounting. Last year, the fire department submitted a bid to provide the city-owned Convention Center with emergency service. Yet by hiring one of its own departments for a service that was once contracted out to a private company, Minneapolis is paying itself--in effect, shuffling resources around between departments to cover budget shortfalls. (The contract has an annual value of $106,000.)

But the city's finance director, Patrick Born, says the arrangement isn't all that unusual, particularly as a response to these hard economic times. Minneapolis, Born notes, also hires police officers to protect its water treatment facilities. "We want departments to operate within the budgets they have," he says. "At the same time, we want to be smart together about how we do things so we're not having to lay people off."

According to Chief Forte, the Convention Center gig, along with other outside EMS and fire-prevention jobs, brought in about $300,000 last year to the cash-strapped department. And he insists it requires only a handful of firefighters--an average of one or two daily, and perhaps twice that for larger events like the camping and RV show held two weekends ago. In addition, Forte says, the department tries to use firefighters who are restricted to light duty anyway because of injury.

Forte does acknowledge, though, that his austerity measures, which included the laying off and subsequent rehiring of 32 firefighters, have damaged department morale. "I think it's higher now than it's been," he offers. "Any time you lay anybody off, it takes time to get morale back up. We're doing things differently now than we've ever done before, and that's going to take some time to get used to."

In fact, moonlighting at the Convention Center isn't even Forte's most creative brainstorm. In response to losing $3 million last year due to cuts in state Local Government Aid (LGA) funding--a 7 percent reduction of the fire department's $42 million 2003 budget--the chief proposed a business plan full of belt-tightening schemes. (The city eventually restored $1 million of the cuts.) In addition to taking over some housing inspection duties from city inspectors and billing insurance companies when firefighters extricate someone from a car wreck, Forte proposed that the department begin using college students to fill out fire-truck crews.

And, in what is surely a sign of desperate times, Forte recommended that Minneapolis begin selling advertising space on the sides of its fire trucks (Forte says that the one advertiser thus far, a state anti-tobacco group, has contributed around $50,000 to his department's depleted coffers). Meanwhile, Forte closed or reorganized three neighborhood fire stations, and, last April, cut 32 of 478 department jobs, dropping the average number of on-duty firefighters to 95 (meaning that 10 fewer firefighters per shift were actually deployed on rigs). According to Forte's own business plan, "Eighty-four personnel deployed on response vehicles is the absolute minimum level of daily staffing required to maintain safe and effective emergency and fire response for the citizens of the city of Minneapolis."

Now at 105, the department's daily staffing is close to what it was before the budget cuts. But some firefighters believe that Forte only rehired the laid-off workers because St. Paul's fire department was courting them. "He would've looked like a clown if St. Paul would've hired trained Minneapolis firefighters," surmises one. At the same time, while state legislators pay post-9/11 lip-service to public safety, further cuts in LGA are likely to keep the department in a state of crisis for years to come, putting the chief in a long-term bind. Yet Forte says he has no plans to cut staff or close more stations, though he says Minneapolis is exploring sharing resources with the fire departments of nearby suburbs.

That may come as cold comfort to the department's rank and file, though, who complain that cuts--and revenue schemes--are already putting both them and citizens at risk. Says the high-ranking department veteran, "It's time to make a commitment: Either we're going to have a fire department in Minneapolis, or we're not. Chief Forte says he has a business plan. Well, this isn't a business; it's a public service."

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