When Jerry Streich became chief of the Centennial Fire District in Lino Lakes in 2008, he faced a common problem: too few firefighters on the trucks and infrequent, inconvenient training classes.

In fact, a 2010 survey found that only one of Anoka County’s 15 fire departments was fully staffed. Fire officials estimated that they would need to recruit 236 paid on-call firefighters over four years just to maintain existing understaffed levels, Streich said.

“When you have a common problem, why not find a solution for everybody?” he said.

So he created a countywide recruiting and training system with a full-time recruiter, paid for by a grant, and a common website directing potential firefighters to local fire departments. A six-month training academy using local fire department instructors and locations that began in August 2012 has 14 candidates attending its third session.

In the program’s first year, the 15 departments have hired about 70 firefighters, and 40 candidates are scheduled for the fourth training academy in January, said county recruiter Mike Schweigert.

The joint program is the first such countywide effort in Minnesota, said Bruce West, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education.

“I think Anoka County is onto something,” West said. “You will probably see more counties and departments getting together.”

West said the state board helps fire departments pay for candidate training to meet national standards for firefighters. He said many groups of four or five city departments train candidates together, but no county has all of its fire departments collaborating as Anoka does.

“Working in larger groups with larger numbers would be beneficial to everyone to train together because they will work together when they do mutual aid” responses by several agencies, he said.

West, a former president of the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association, said he hasn’t heard of other states with countywide recruiting programs. A query about the national recruiting picture went unanswered at the National Fire Academy in Maryland because of the federal government shutdown.

FEMA grant a big help

About a year ago, Streich won a $1.2 million, four-year grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the county recruiting system. The FEMA grant has covered the full-time recruiter’s salary, emergency medicine training costs and setting up a recruiting website, mnfirehire.com. The website directs candidates to their local department and to recruiter Schweigert, who ensures contact follow-up.

The grant also has paid for two, recently delivered recruiting trailers with promotional equipment and billboards. They are available to all 15 county departments for fire agency or community events. The trailers are booked solid for October, Schweigert said.

The program was launched in early 2010 after Streich went to a quarterly meeting of Anoka County fire chiefs.

“I presented the [academy] idea to them and showed the cost savings,” said Streich, who has worked with Anoka departments before. He said a few chiefs were skeptical until he won the grant, which pays for candidate equipment and some academy training.

Streich, 46, said he recruited fire officials Tim Gilsrud and Harland Lundstrom from nearby cities to help him organize the academy and line up about 30 instructors from area departments. The academy reduced training costs by more than half to about $750 per candidate and enabled cities to plan recruiting events before academy classes begin every January and August, he said. Training and equipping a new firefighter costs about $6,500, Streich said.

Fridley has sent three candidates through the academy. All passed and are on-call firefighters, said Fire Capt. Renee Hamdorf. She said the city has placed the recruiting trailers near City Hall on University Avenue for passing motorists to view, and also took the trailers to recent Night to Unite neighborhood gatherings.

Trailers attract attention

“People are attracted to the trailers and ask what they mean,” Hamdorf said. She noted the department is about 10 firefighters short of a full, 40-member force.

She said countywide training is a good way for new candidates to meet other future firefighters and instructors from other departments with whom they may someday fight fires on mutual aid calls.

The joint program “is a great effort for all the communities involved,” said Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper. He has sent about five candidates through the academy.

Streich, a firefighter for 26 years in four cities, has beefed up his own department, which was short 14 of the 52 firefighters needed to be fully staffed when Streich arrived in 2008. Since then he has hired 54 firefighters.

He said Centennial, which covers three cities, reached full force, now about 60 — including five women — for the first time in more than eight years in August. That lasted until last week when three firefighters resigned for family or job reasons, so he’s training three more candidates.

“People have to take care of their basic needs — family, jobs and housing — before they do firefighting,” Streich said. He said flexibility is needed so the part-time firefighters, who earn pension credit and about $12 an hour during calls, can still attend family gatherings and their children’s sporting and other events. A key to retaining people is involving firefighters’ families in waffle breakfasts or other events and building staff camaraderie, he said.

However, as chief, he knows that “we have to have enough people on the truck to mitigate the hazards that can occur.”

Schweigert said he surveyed the county’s fire agencies and found they lose an average of 1.6 firefighters from each department each year, and the typical part-time firefighter stays 10 years with a department.

Part-time firefighting means a big time commitment.

Candidates must attend 178 hours of classes over six months on topics such as firefighting methods, emergency first aid and department policies so they can pass state tests to become certified firefighters. As firefighters, they must respond to about 30 percent or more of all fire or emergency calls at their local station. Anoka County departments average about three calls a day, Streich said.

Candidate Mike Lubowitz, 29, attended a fire extinguisher class last week at Fire Station 3 in northwest Blaine. After seeing an overhead PowerPoint presentation in the large conference room, he and the other 13 candidates pulled on fire coats and went outside to put out fires with extinguishers.

Lubowitz, of the Anoka-Champlin Fire Department, was a firefighter in the U.S. Navy. He said he got hooked on firefighting as a teenage Explorer Scout working with his dad, an assistant fire chief in Motley, Minn. “It is a passion,” he said. “My first fire call was to a horse barn fire as a 16-year-old.”

Door-to-door recruiting

Centennial recruiting has changed since Streich arrived in 2008. Then the department put ads in the local newspaper and invited people to Saturday morning open houses at a fire station.

Now it advertises on social media and goes door-knocking. “We went door to door with fliers, and we shook hands and talked to people at parades and open houses,” Streich said.

Schweigert said knocking on 500 doors in Lino Lakes produced 10 candidates. Eight were eliminated after interviews or physical agility tests, and two are being trained. He said Centennial’s third current trainee was attracted through the countywide website.