Fires and Back Drafts

Fred Petters

In the immediate wake of 9/11, the entire country deified its firefighters and police officers. There were sappy rock anthems, glossy picture books, TV docudramas, and yellow ribbons on station house doors from coast to coast. These steely men and women were touted as the embodiment of this country's inextinguishable spirit. You couldn't walk down the street without seeing someone sporting an NYPD or FDNY T-shirt.

It seems that's already history.

Last month, the Minnesota legislature passed a conceal-carry bill that promises to put another 80,000 handguns on the street, despite the objections of every law enforcement organization in the state. A few days earlier, the Minneapolis City Council, faced with a massive cut in State Aid to Local Governments (LGA), approved a plan to save $3 million a year by laying off 55 firefighters. In both instances, politicians--spurred on by special interests such as the NRA and sensing little in the way of lasting public outrage--jeopardized the safety of cops, firefighters, and the public alike.

"You almost feel like the city doesn't value your life," Capt. Josh Tjaden of the Minneapolis Fire Department told me last week. "It's really hurt the department's morale--there's just this overriding feeling that people don't care."

The National Fire Protection Association has determined that fire rigs should carry a minimum of four firefighters; in Minneapolis, staff cuts have forced that number down to three. According to Fire Chief Rocco Forte, the sacrifice was necessary to keep a sufficient amount of trucks running and to ensure that citywide response times remain the same (current standards say the first engine should arrive within eight minutes).

Reducing the number of first-responders on the scene exacerbates the risks of the job. Tjaden found that out firsthand on April 24, when three girls were shot on the corner of 37th and Chicago in south Minneapolis. Like 80 to 85 percent of the calls answered by the department, this was a medical emergency in which Tjaden and his colleagues arrived ahead of ambulances to perform triage, secure the scene, and gather as much information as possible.

When the two ambulances on the scene finally prepared to leave, one driver asked two firefighters to ride along--a typical appeal, especially when a potentially fatal injury is involved. But since the first ambulance had also required assistance, the MFD had to deny the request. "We ride down with two people quite often. But we can't abandon our engine so, in that case, we ended up sending one person with each ambulance," Tjaden says. "If that patient would've crashed, it could have been tragic."

Last week, Tom Thornberg, president of the firefighters' union, took me on a tour of the station house he commands near Stadium Village. In just a few minutes, he drew a compelling picture of the potential dangers to a three-person fire crew. Under the four-person scheme, one firefighter handled the pumps, one guided the heavy, rock-hard hose, and two others--one controlling the spray nozzle, the other looking for flash points or back drafts--entered a burning structure. Now the first firefighter to enter a burning building will have to do so alone for the eight to ten minutes that usually pass before backup arrives (a crucial period in any blaze, since a fire doubles in size each minute it goes unchecked).

"It's only a matter of time before someone gets killed," Thornberg says. "I just can't believe what the city is doing to their department. Do they realize that they're putting people in peril? Do they realize that their loved ones aren't being protected the way they could?"

Thornberg, along with Mike Wilkinson--who was hired by the union to wage a public-relations battle against budget reductions--believe the city has the money to avoid cuts to public safety. In particular, they point to $60 million in NRP funds and money available from the city's $40.5 million deal to sell its stake in the Minneapolis Hilton. They also wonder why there have been layoffs before state legislators even settle on a final budget.

Mayor R.T. Rybak says he empathizes with Thornberg, but adds that the Pawlenty administration's guaranteed cuts in LGA funding necessitated a pre-emptive cut. As for Thornberg's ideas about where the money could be found, Rybak contends those revenue streams are either untouchable (such as NRP) or are one-time sources that should be invested, not depleted (such as the Hilton fund). What's more, he is livid that the union has chosen to take on the city, when Pawlenty is the one who controls the purse strings.

"There is an enormous difference between the firefighters on the street, who are doing tremendous work, and their Republican-leaning union leaders and their paid shills who have been irresponsible, reckless with the facts, and, in the end, destructive to the people who are working hard to provide safety to the city," Rybak says angrily.


If the polls are any indication, one might conclude that economic reality is finally starting to catch up with the Pawlenty administration. According to Saturday's Star Tribune, the governor's approval rating has dipped to 50 percent, a 10-point drop in just two months. What's more, three-quarters of those polled about the state budget deficit approve some sort of tax hike to solve the crisis.

Pawlenty's people are unmoved by those numbers, of course, and claim to have expected the decline in the governor's popularity given the deep cuts at the legislature and the continuing recession. Larry Jacobs, a U of M political scientist quoted in the Strib this weekend, was not so sanguine about the Guv's waning popularity. "It's not a do-or-die situation," he said, "but these numbers could embolden opponents, both moderate Republicans and DFLers."

In other words, the last two weeks of the 2003 legislative session may prove to contain some room for compromise--assuming Democrats, educators, union members, welfare advocates, and whatever "moderate" Republicans are left come together to press the administration.

In any case, the Pawlenty administration no longer looks to be invulnerable in pushing its legislative agenda. Specifically, the administration is showing signs of buckling on the subject of LGA, in large part because they don't want to be seen as anti-public safety. With a little more pressure at the capitol, Minneapolis might be spared deep cuts both now and in the future--in which case, Rybak says, the city could possibly rehire laid-off firefighters and prevent more cuts in 2004. (Fire Chief Forte has already sent around a memo indicating that, if Pawlenty gets what he wants, the department will have to eliminate 60 more jobs next year.)

Up to this point, though, the union has taken on Pawlenty with kid gloves. On April 14, in fact, Minneapolis firefighters held a protest across the street from City Hall, pointedly abstaining from joining fellow Minnesota unionists who had taken their case to the state capitol.

"The union sent someone to talk to me about that protest," Rybak says. "They told me that if I unilaterally rescinded any fire cuts, the protest would move to St. Paul. And if I didn't, they bring the fight to City Hall. I consider that blackmail. And I will not be blackmailed."

No wonder Pawlenty's people are so blasé about last weekend's poll. Like any good Republican--and most good Democrats, these days--he can make hay braying about overspending, then pass the practical burden of his cuts on to others. If such nonsense is allowed to stand, we will all spend years absorbing just what this "fiscal austerity" is all about.

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