You can live the childhood dream, save lives, even impress your kids — and keep your day job.

That’s the message of a new recruitment effort launched by the Fridley Fire Department. Fridley has five full-time firefighter positions but, like most Minnesota cities, relies heavily on paid on-call members.

The Fire Department budget is around $1.1 million a year, and Fire Chief John Berg estimates that using about 30 paid on-call firefighters saves the city more than $2 million a year.

But it’s become more difficult to fill those positions as ­people are pulled in many directions with family commitments and demanding careers.

“It’s a struggle. It’s painful,” Berg said. “It’s just been harder to get on-call and volunteer firefighters. That’s a national issue. According to some of the studies that the National Fire Protection Association has done, it’s just an issue of time. You have to invest a lot of time in it.”

Of the 20,600 firefighters in Minnesota, 18,600 are either ­volunteer or paid on-call, usually receiving a nominal fee for each emergency.

 

Berg hopes that some fresh recruiting tactics will pull in people who long ago dreamed of being a firefighter. To spark some interest, the Fridley department hosted a pair of first-ever interactive clinics where possible recruits could try on equipment, climb the ladder truck, put on a cold-water survival suit and jump into a water tank.

Participants were also able to strap on 60 pounds of gear and walk through a simulated building fire at the Fridley training facility and talk to firefighters.

“It helps get them in and see what we’re doing, getting them excited about doing the job,” Berg said. “Firefighting is a teamwork job. …

“This event puts aside some of the things you see on television or in the media. It gives them an opportunity to try it out and talk to the firefighters and say, ‘Hey, they are real people like me. They are day-care providers, clergy and engineers.’”

Capt. Renee Hamdorf, one of the full-time Fridley firefighters, oversaw the two recruiting events. A big part of the mission is letting people know this opportunity exists. “People assume we’re a full-time department,” Hamdorf said.

Training and work

It’s a big commitment. There are written and physical tests as part of the application process. If selected, a person puts in nearly a year of firefighting and EMT training.

The department responds to about 3,000 emergency calls a year. More than half are medical in nature. Fridley on-call firefighters earn $16 an hour for calls, and there is a retirement package for long-serving individuals.

“We are asking people to give up Christmas dinner if the pager goes off, to leave a kids sports event,” Hamdorf said.

The payoffs are big, too.

“I’ve delivered a baby. I’ve done CPR and saved lives,” Hamdorf said, describing her 14 years as a firefighter.

“It’s being able to help people in the most unique ways. Their worst day is an opportunity to help,” Hamdorf said. “It’s a great experience.”

Hamdorf is the only woman in the Fridley Fire Department, which is predominantly white and male.

Part of the recruiting effort is to make sure women and minority residents know about the paid on-call opportunity.

Hamdorf said women shouldn’t be intimidated. She has worked as a firefighter for 14 years, even through a pregnancy.

“I responded to calls until I was six months pregnant and the gear didn’t fit,” she said.

Interested participant

Nathan Peterson attended one of the recruiting events, watching firefighters practicing an extraction with a crumpled Audi sedan and then putting out a car fire.

Peterson’s uncle is a volunteer firefighter in Mendota Heights.

“I’ve always been envious,” said Peterson, who works in sales and service at an auto dealership. He said he’d like the chance to do some public service, to feel that “I’ve accomplished something.”

Peterson tried on the gear and went inside a two-story training building with simulated smoke and fire.

“It was impressive. I can imagine with the smoke and people screaming, it would be hard to keep your cool,” he said.

Peterson said he’s definitely applying for the force. He knows his toddler son will be impressed to have a daddy who’s a firefighter. His wife is on board, too.

Scott Barsness has served as a paid on-call firefighter for 15 years, first in Columbia Heights and now in Fridley.

“It was something I was interested in as a child,” he said.

At age 19, he met a paid on-call firefighter during a camping trip who told Barsness how he could get involved.

He’s now an architectural designer with a family, but he still manages to make on-call duty work.

“It’s rewarding and it’s a bunch of fun,” Barsness said. “It’s certainly a challenge. I have a wife and two kids at home. Life’s busy but this is part of it.”

Barsness said he recommends paid on-call firefighting.

“It helps put a lot of things in perspective,” he said. “When I go to work here, all my problems disappear.”

To learn more about the Fridley Fire Department go to www.fridleymn.gov or call 763-572- 3612.