St. Paul fire Capt. Chris Parsons was trying to pull a ladder truck out of the station to rush to a medical call when the thing wouldn't budge: The air brake chamber was broken.
The truck hadn't received preventive maintenance due to financial strain on the department from overtime costs to replace active military staffers, Parsons said. The incident illustrates why a proposed bill that would provide state dollars to departments is vital to public safety, said Parsons, secretary of the St. Paul firefighters union.
He added that in better years, the broken part would have been spotted and replaced long before it failed.
State Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, have introduced legislation that would reimburse local governments for the cost of replacing personnel on active military duty, including National Guard training. Departments are dipping into their annual budgets for overtime pay, which cuts into equipment maintenance and training, fire officials from St. Paul and Minneapolis said at a news conference Tuesday.
The St. Paul Fire Department has about 30 staffers on active or reserve military duty. Minneapolis has about 15.
Parsons said that St. Paul spent $480,000 in 2011 and $390,000 in 2012 backfilling for military staff. The Fire Department has a budget of about $55 million.
Other coping mechanisms include reducing staffing to cut overtime pay and indefinite or rotating "brownouts," where fire stations are closed. In St. Paul, four fire companies rotated through brownouts in 2011. Officials decided to close one station from mid-2012 through the end of 2013.
St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler said brownouts can delay response times, even if only a few minutes, that could be detrimental for calls such as heart attacks, where survivability drops 10 percent every minute.
Departments have also taken a hit through cuts to local government aid, said Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union.
"We are pretty much bare-bones on staff," Lakosky said. "We can't absorb" the cost of replacing active military staff.
One trade-off is that St. Paul didn't send any of its 435 firefighters to paramedic school last year even though about a dozen expressed interest, Butler said. It costs $11,000 per person for nine months of schooling.
St. Paul firefighters are cross-trained as EMTs or paramedics. Paramedics are down to about 135, when about 150 to 160 would be ideal, Butler said.
Simonson, an assistant fire chief, and Pappas said the state fund would ideally contain more than $1 million that would be distributed as grants.
It's unclear how many active military personnel work as first responders in Minnesota, but Parsons and Lakosky said their numbers will only increase due to federal and state laws that give active and discharged members preference in government jobs.