Critical staffing shortages are hitting fire departments across Minnesota, leaving the ranks of many dangerously thin because far fewer people want to commit to years of demanding training exercises and unpredictable emergency calls.
The problem surfaced most recently in Stillwater, where Fire Chief Stuart Glaser sounded the alarm to the City Council that the city's pool of on-call, part-time firefighters was evaporating. Some recent recruits, Glaser said, didn't stay long enough to learn how to drive a fire truck and others left the job after the city had invested thousands of dollars to train them.
"We're constantly burning through people," said Dan Concha, 24, a part-time firefighter at departments in Roseville, Maplewood and North St. Paul who's heard of shortages. "People had to drop out because it was too much. They don't see the benefit of getting 10 bucks for spending an hour on a unit call. Every unit is struggling to keep enough guys."
State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl said rural departments, too, are desperate for help, including one that had only four volunteers whose average age was 76.
"It probably is a crisis in some communities. This is a problem nationwide. It's not unique to Minnesota," Rosendahl said.
Minnesota has more than 20,000 firefighters, most of them on-call volunteers who are paid only when they're needed. They receive the same training as chiefs and their assistants, requiring long hours at firehouses, but many of them leave the job after cities invest tens of thousands of dollars in teaching them how to fight fires, save lives and operate sophisticated equipment.
"The turnover rate is extremely high," Glaser said, naming Bloomington, Excelsior, New Brighton, Woodbury, Minnetonka and Plymouth among those cities experiencing similar problems.
The "combination" strategy that cities have used for years — retaining a volunteer force of paid, on-call firefighters to supplement a minimal full-time crew managing the station — isn't working anymore in many cities.
Reasons vary, but most often it's that potential firefighters lead busier lives with family obligations, sports and electronics. In the metro area especially, commuting has bled many suburban cities of prospects who work miles away and spend hours on the road. Cities' emphasis on cutting spending and taxes also has distracted residents from the life-or-death importance of firefighting.
"Society has changed," Glaser said. "It's not easy for people anymore to drop everything and come to the fire department for a call. It's busier, everybody is expected to do more, and it's getting tougher and tougher to meet all those requirements."
Glaser said he expected five retirements on top of eight current vacancies in the on-call ranks. There are 24 now in on-call. The City Council responded by voting 5-0 to hire two full-time firefighters to enable Glaser to assemble three-person "duty crews" at the station. The posting for the two full-time firefighters attracted 36 respondents.
"In 30 years I've been pretty much against full-time fire departments but after meeting with Stu, and looking at the issue, our current model is broken," said Stillwater City Administrator Larry Hansen. "It's been slowly losing its way for 30 years. In the immediate future I can tell you we have a problem and this looks like the least expensive way to correct it."
In Cottage Grove, 26 miles from Stillwater, chronic problems with on-call shortages led to a new approach where part-time firefighters work 12-hour "duty crew" shifts. "Instead of living by the pager they're already at the station. They've already committed themselves to working a block of time," said P.J. McMahon, the city's assistant fire chief.
In Roseville, another city that adopted the duty crew approach, more part-time firefighters leave nowadays because they're hired at full-time departments in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and other larger cities, said Fire Chief Tim O'Neill. When prospective firefighters learn they'll have to complete 500 hours of classroom fire and medical training, and operate big trucks, "they go back to their families and say, nah, I can't do that," O'Neill said.
Concha, a native of White Bear Lake, hopes to land a full-time job, with benefits, at a larger department. He got married in May and said his wife asked about hours required for training and emergency calls.
"She lets me know when things are getting out of hand," he said. "Sometimes it just feels like my life is the fire department and that feels emotionally exhausting."
"Down quite a bit"
To head off potentially dangerous shortages, chiefs everywhere rely more and more on strong "mutual aid" agreements with neighboring cities to make sure sufficient help arrives at the scene of fires, Rosendahl said. Some cities employ "automatic aid," when emergency dispatchers alert several fire departments to save precious response time.
"It's not just the fire chiefs' problem," Rosendahl said. "Communities need to pay more attention to the services that are there. What most citizens believe, quite frankly, is that their fire departments have full-time staff which is not the case."
In Bloomington, which has six fire stations, three-person duty crews are scheduled at three of them. Chief Ulysses Seal said, "You'll find a lot of different flavors" in how duty crews are configured as cities try to find the best use of their money. His department, authorized for 155 firefighters, has 120.
"We're down quite a bit," Seal said.
The Stillwater Fire Department, with a $1.1 million annual budget, covers a 61-square-mile area. That zone includes 24,000 people, nine schools, the St. Croix River, the Washington County Government Center and several senior apartment buildings with hundreds of residents.
The vote to loosen the budget for more full-time firefighters in Stillwater came after Council Member Doug Menikheim delivered an impassioned appeal for more resources.
"We're playing with life and death here, you know that," Menikheim said after Glaser's presentation.