Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel: The City Pages entrance interview

John Fruetel is not walking into an easy situation.

As newly appointed Minneapolis fire chief, Fruetel is now the head of a department that has experienced dramatic budget cuts over the years, leaving many firefighters to question whether the city has their best interest in mind.

As we reported in our November 2010 cover story, "Man Down," the impact of budget cuts is substantial. Most notably, some rigs are commonly staffed with only three firefighters -- one fewer than the national standard for the safe minimum. As a result, firefighters spend more time at a fire, and are exposed to dangerous conditions for a longer period of time. The city also eliminated its mandatory minimum for daily staffing.

Fruetel says safety will be his highest priority as chief, and admits that a decrease in staffing has already led to more injuries.

"It's a lot more challenging than it used to be, and that's starting to be a little reflected in our injury rates to our firefighters," he told us. "We're starting to see an increase. As we have sort of trended downward in size of the department, injury rates to firefighters have started to trend upward a little bit."

The increase in injuries then goes on to aggravate another issue that has earned the department criticism: overtime pay. When Fruetel's predecessor, Alex Jackson, retired earlier this year, the department was facing criticism from the City Council for a $1 million overtime bill. Fruetel says the increase in injuries also translates to an increase in overtime.

The department has also undergone criticism for a program that tasks firefighters with boarding up buildings. Though it's designed to bring revenue to the department, it had lost $281,977 last fall -- 11 months after it began -- according to city data.

We sat down with Fruetel in his office to ask him about all of this. He says his goal is to begin growing the department back as soon as possible, and the department has already applied for the SAFER grant, a national funding program that could help rehire firefighters laid off last year.

How's it been going so far?

It's been an interesting first 10 weeks, to be honest with you. We've just been really busy. We've had a number of fires, and anytime you transition into a position, there's a lot of challenges, a lot of things you have to get yourself back up to speed on, even though I did work for the department as an assistant chief, and retired a couple years ago into emergency management. Things still change, even in a short time.

What's priority number one?

My priority has got to be safety. Safety of our firefighters, safety of the folks who live and work and enjoy the entertainment this city provides. That's always got to be number one. Beyond that, coming back here, our state and local government -- especially local government -- have certainly been impacted by the economic downturn, like so many folks have been impacted. And that impact has certainly created some challenges in terms of maintaining the staffing model that we presently have in Minneapolis. And that all relates back to budget and personnel and those costs. So you know, that's probably a second big challenge for me is to try to minimize the impact to this organization, that economic impact that we are all experiencing right now.

And how do you do that?

Quite frankly, we're probably going to have to get a little bit creative in how we staff. We're probably going to get a little creative in looking internally, if there's any additional revenue streams that can be generated to assist in meeting budget. We have, I think, at this point, have pretty much taken most of the fat out of the organization, out of the budget. We're all operating in very, very lean times right now.

Even in lean times, we need to get creative to rehire some of those folks and roll the department back just a little bit.

Is there, in Minneapolis right now, a minimum daily staffing statute?

No, there really isn't a minimum staffing. I know that it takes a certain number of people to keep all those apparatus open.

But it used to be 96.

Yeah. Personally, for me, I look at it a little differently. We have a little broader mission than most people think. We do provide fire watches at the Convention Center, for example. We do fire watches at the Target Center for events that have pyrotechnics.

So when we say, we have whatever number it might be to put people on fire trucks, there is still a broader daily mission which takes people to do. I would look at, for me personally, how many people per shift that I may need to effectively manage a daily operation. We have contractual issues of vacation, we have injuries, people who are, quite frankly, still in Afghanistan. So when you add in all of that, it's hard to put a number -- you need a larger number to cover the much broader areas.

So you're saying, you would need more than 96?

Yeah. That's 96 people on the fire trucks. Ultimately, every fire chief would like to have four on every apparatus, you know, four on every engine company, four on every truck company. We would like to do that, but you know, that's a goal that we try to achieve and work back to that. That's why I talk about growing the department back a little bit. But I think we need to take a really good look at just, you know, how big do we really need to be? What's our core mission and goals? And then size accordingly.

So is it OK that there is no longer a mandatory daily minimum staffing?

I don't know if I would call it OK. That's why the top of my list is always safety. You know, if I ever feel that our firefighters -- in this case, my firefighters -- are in jeopardy, or their safety, and/or the citizens of the city become an issue, then I'm going to have to make some decisions. That's why, in my 2013 budget, I'm going to include a request to start hiring cadet classes. Not large classes, but smaller classes to start giving back to growing the department back a little bit.

So when will be the next cadet class?

Ideally, I would like to be able to start one January for 2013. That would be an ideal start date. That's where we have to all get creative in coming up with the revenue.

You talk about safety relative to staffing. You talk about stuff like how many people you have on rigs. I mean, is it more dangerous now to be a firefighter in Minneapolis than it was, say, five or six years ago, when staffing levels were higher?

I don't think it's more dangerous. Fire fighting has been a dangerous profession since its inception. The thing you start to come up against is, when you look at just the core requirements, the basic requirements, that it takes to respond to and effectively mount an attack to a structure fire. It is very physically demanding. And as you get smaller, common sense would tell all of us that we've got less people doing more work, and it's very physically demanding. So now instead of having two people pull hose lines you might have one.

It's a lot more challenging than it used to be, and that is starting to be a little reflected in our injury rates to our firefighters. We're starting to see an increase. As we have sort of trended downward in size of the department, injury rates to firefighters have started to trend upward a little bit. So you can kind of make a correlation that as we've gotten smaller, injuries are starting to come up, and that has impact. And that's what we try to minimize. Those are the things that are extremely challenging.

Is the fire department still doing the board-up program?

Yes we are.

How come? After the first year, it lost several hundred thousand dollars.

We constantly look at that. We receive funding, we receive a set amount for the work that we do on the board-up program. And that's one of those programs you need to look at. First of all, is it an effective and efficient way for us to try to support our budget? That's something that needs to be looked at.

We're looking at it again this year to see if it's something that should be continued. Right now we will be continuing it through 2013. So there is a sunset on it, and it will be reevaluated.

As we go through this downturn in the economy, obviously with foreclosures, and some buildings that for whatever reason have been identified for demolition, and as the number of those buildings go down, the ability to generate the funds to sustain that program certainly start to dwindle. It really starts to balance out, where you tip the pendulum the other way a little bit, and now it's costing us more than it is to actually do the program.

It hasn't been around for that long. And my understanding is, when they first came up with the plan, it was 2008, when foreclosures were at a lot higher rate than they are now. By the time it was actually in effect [in October 2010], it didn't deliver what they thought. But, again, after getting some data from the department and talking to people in the department, it was actually losing money rather than making money. So why keep doing it?

You have to remember now, you sign an agreement. We're taking a really close look and watching those costs. Obviously if it's something that's starting not to be cost effective to do, then the recommendation from me would be to stop doing the board-up.

That's also, if I'm not mistaken, taking firefighters away from fires.

Yeah. That's, when I talk about my expanded mission, that's part of the things that we do that's hard to put a number on. Our overall mission is much broader than that.

OK, and I know one of the issues that came up with Jackson was overtime pay. How are you handling that?

Since I've been back, and again it's only been a short window for me to reevaluate, sick leave has actually been pretty good. It's been in control. It hasn't really created an issue where I've had to be concerned. My broader issue that I've got that's creating a little bit of overtime is our injuries. And that's something that when we have people get injured on incident scenes, that has created some overtime costs. But that's not related to sick leave usage at all.

We talked a lot about shorter-term goals. When you leave the office, any longer-term goals you want to have accomplished?

Yeah. And I know that I'm in the sunset of my career. In other words, I've been here a long time.

I would hope that, before I leave, we will have established some sustainable goals in growing the department back a little bit, by a process in place that we can annually plan on hiring every January a class of a certain size to minimize the impact of the attrition that I think we've got coming. I would like to hopefully complete and formalize a mentorship program or a sustainable program for the development of young officers. And finally, I hope that when I'm done with however long my tenure will last, that I will be able to provide to leadership of the city a list of internal candidates that I can hand to the mayor and say, 'These folks are ready, they're qualified.' I hope that they would give serious consideration to continue hiring internal candidates to lead this organization. And that's what I really hope to do, so when I step aside I can hand it off, and we will just continue down this path.

Previous Coverage:

  • Minneapolis Fire Dept. board-up program lost $281,977 in 11 months
  • John Fruetel appointed to chief of Minneapolis Fire Department
  • COVER: Man Down

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