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Minneapolis firefighter who saved referee to be laid off

It was late November, and Justin Johnson was watching a Thanksgiving youth hockey tournament at Braemar Ice Arena, an Edina rink where he worked part time as an EMT.

Toward the end of the second period, Johnson was standing ice level when he saw the referee suddenly collapse. Quickly, he hopped onto the rink and ran toward the limp body.

"He wasn't breathing and there was no pulse," he says. "It was obvious that he was having a heart attack."

Johnson began the chest compressions while a nurse went for the defibrillator. With the whole arena watching, Johnson jolted the lifeless 54-year-old's heart back into rhythm with one shock, bringing him back to life.

"It was pretty crazy," says Johnson, "doing that in front of a whole crowd of people."

The Edina City Council was so grateful that they reunited Johnson and the referee a month later at its monthly meeting, where the council awarded Johnson and those who helped him certificates of merit for their heroism.

But for Johnson, working as an EMT is only a side gig. His real job is a full-time Minneapolis firefighter -- or at least it is for one more month.

Johnson is one of 10 firefighters who found out this week they are being laid off due to budget cuts in Minneapolis. Three more will be forced into retirement.

With less than 30 days left on the job, Johnson's future is uncertain. He's considering everything from fighting fires in Iraq to bartending in downtown Minneapolis.

In a cash-strapped fire department like Minneapolis', however, the layoff news didn't come as too much of a surprise.

"They've been threatening us with layoffs since we showed up," says Johnson, who was one of 24 people hired to the department in 2008 out of several thousand applicants. "We show up and they're like, 'Well congratulations on getting the job, but we don't know how long you're going to be here'."

A year after being hired, Johnson was warned he might be laid off, he says, though the city ended up finding enough money to keep him on.

But he knew his luck would likely run out eventually.

"Everyone knows what's been going on with the budget," he says. "You just know that eventually the ball's rolling down hill."

Last month, the Minnesota Legislature cut Local Government Aid in the 2011 budget agreement, triggering a series of cuts in Minneapolis.

Mayor R.T. Rybak and the City Council saved some jobs through reserve funds, which they believe will prevent rigs and stations from closing, says Rybak spokesman John Stiles. But they had to shed some positions to make ends meet.

Though he's not sure where he'll go next, Johnson hopes he can eventually circle back to the Minneapolis fire department.

"I know I'm screwed for a minute, but at least I know I can come back at some point," he says. "This has been a dream of mine for a long time."

Previous Coverage:

  • Minneapolis cuts 13 firefighters, unofficially lowers daily staffing
  • Man Down: Cuts have left MFD below industry standards
  • Minneapolis Fire Dept. board-up plan failing after six months
  • Minneapolis fire, police departments face $2.8 million cuts -- at least

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