Minneapolis Fire Dept. board-up plan failing after six months

It's been slightly more than six months since Minneapolis started tasking its on-duty firefighters with boarding up buildings and houses all over the city, and the program is already on track to be a disaster.

When City Councilmembers introduced the board-up plan, they projected it would save the cash-strapped department $400,000 a year. At the halfway point of the first year, the program has billed about $39,000, according to fire department data, which does little more than cover the costs of materials.

The greater cost of the program, according to many in the fire department, is that it's pulling firefighters away from emergencies, and spreading an already imperiled department dangerously thin.

"It's a failure, and they're taking guys off rigs," says Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union. "It's ridiculous."

There are two kinds of board-ups: emergency and non-emergency. With emergency board-ups, such as a door broken out in police raid, firefighters must be on scene within 30 minutes. For non-emergency jobs--most commonly foreclosed houses--the firefighters have 72 hours.

The board-up plan has been unpopular with firefighters since before it even started. It requires one on-duty firefighter to drive a board-up truck during every shift, instead of responding to calls. As it is, the department's daily staffing levels are below industry standards (For more on the dangers of low-staffing read our November 2010 feature, "Man Down").

"You're taking them completely out of the equation," says outgoing union secretary Reid Wilson. "You're pulling them off the rig, they're no longer available to respond to emergencies."

Minneapolis Fire Dept. board-up plan failing after six months
Source: Minneapolis Fire Department.

Former City Councilmember Paul Ostrow, who introduced the board-up program, says the plan was to help the troubled fire department save money, and in turn save jobs.

"The $400,000 that was going out the door could stay internal and help us keep five or six firefighters," he says. "That was the notion of it."

Ostrow says he never intended to pull firefighters away from emergencies.

"I'll be blunt, that is extremely disappointing," says Ostrow, now the assistant Anoka County attorney. "That is not the way it was supposed to work, and it completely eliminates the benefit of it."

Some firefighters wonder if the low revenue could have been predicted. Bert Castrojen, a private contractor who took care of citywide board-ups before the fire department, told City Pages last fall that the city's numbers seemed way off.

When Ostrow introduced the plan in 2008, the foreclosure crisis had left a graveyard of vacant houses, and the board-up business boomed. Since then, foreclosures have dropped off significantly. In October 2010, Castrojen told us he had downsized his business and was making about one-third of what he made in 2008.

"I don't want to say I told you so, but we said it wasn't going to work," says Lakosky. "No one in the council had the guts to take it out."

Asst. Fire Chief Dave DeWall, who is in charge of the program, has no delusions that the program is on track to make the projected $400,000.

"The numbers back in that day probably were very elevated," he admits.

However, DeWall does predict that the second half of the year will be more profitable than the first. This is because past data shows there is a greater need for board-ups in the warmer months, he says.

"If you ask me, are we going to reach that mark that they were looking for, I'm going to guess and say no," says DeWall. "But only time can tell. I can be way off. We could be out boarding up like crazy this whole summer and reach a number that I guess I'm not expecting."

But the data could be worse than it sounds. DeWall says the current numbers don't reflect the cost of labor. Factoring this into the equation, the board-up program could end up costing the department money.

DeWall couldn't speculate on how much the department has paid in labor so far.

Based on the salary and benefits of the average firefighter, Wilson predicts labor could be costing more than $200,000 a year for all the firefighters it takes to keep the program running around the clock.

Despite the grim numbers, City Councilmember Don Samuels says the fire department will continue the board-ups for a full year before they evaluate whether or not it's working. He admits that the numbers don't look promising.

"If it's working the same way it is now, we're not going to do it anymore," says Samuels. "That would be my recommendation."

Previous Coverage:

  • Minneapolis Fire Department would lay off eight under GOP plan
  • R.T. Rybak laments fire department cuts: Q & A
  • Minneapolis Fire Department faces perilous future
  • Man Down: Follow the paper trail
  • Mark Dayton's budget would save Minneapolis firefighters from layoffs

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