With new duties, Twin Cities Fire Departments face change to core practices

Fire calls are down while medical calls are up. So cities are changing how they fund and manage their departments.

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St. Paul firefighter paramedics Mark Sottile (left) and Luke Ritchie (right) practiced rapid sequence intubation while being observed by Aaron Burnett of Regions Hospital.

Photo: Brian Peterson • bpeterson@startribune.com,

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Most of the time when a fire truck rumbles out of a ­Minneapolis fire station, it’s not going to a fire.

Only 4 percent of the Minneapolis Fire Department’s 36,985 runs in 2012 involved running a water line to fight a fire in a house, commercial building, car, dumpster or a field. The rest of the time, firefighters were racing to a heart attack or some other medical emergency, a rescue, a hazardous condition or a false alarm.

The sharp decline in fires nationally — they are down 50 percent over the last decade in Minneapolis alone — has been credited to everything from better building codes to fewer people smoking. As the nature of firefighting jobs has changed, city officials across the country have begun looking at less costly alternatives to responding to medical and emergency calls.

In Minneapolis, next year’s proposed $58.5 million ­budget for the city’s Fire Department includes a $250,000 pilot program for an emergency-equipped SUV to handle ­medical calls in some parts of the city. If adopted, it would alter the department’s bedrock practice of sending a fire truck out on every call, which is why both Fire Chief John Fruetel and union president Mark Lakosky are wary of the proposal.

“This is the tone I get fearful of,” said Lakosky. “Don’t reduce rigs and service.”

The debate over next year’s fire budget will fall to newly-elected Mayor Betsy Hodges, who as City Council budget chair had an acrimonious relationship with the firefighting union. Hodges didn’t return a call for comment on this story.

Fruetel said he’s not sure what the department will look like in the future, in part because new demands and opportunities brought by the federal Affordable Care Act are also complicating the picture.

“It’s so hard to predict where it could go,” Fruetel said this week.

Fire trucks for everything

On a recent day in Minneapolis, a man who had parked near Nicollet Mall in the heart of downtown Minneapolis accidentally locked his two children in the family car. A 911 call brought a ladder truck and firefighters within seven minutes, the ladder truck equipped with tools to break into cars and buildings if necessary to free people trapped inside. A report on the incident said the firefighters stood by until a tow truck arrived to open the car, likely because the children were not in immediate danger and didn’t require the ­firefighters to smash into the car.

Such rescue and EMS incidents account for two-thirds of all calls handled by the Minneapolis Fire Department last year. False alarms, co-called “good intent calls,” service calls and hazardous conditions calls filled up much of the rest of the department’s workload.

The trend is similar across both Minnesota and the country. Fifteen years ago, about 12 percent of calls to fire departments in Minnesota were for fires. Last year it was 7 percent. The United States recorded 3.3 million fires in 1977, but by last year that number had fallen to 1.4 million, a 58 percent drop, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Considering that the nation’s population grew during that period, an even steeper fall of 70 percent was recorded in fires per 1,000 people.

The pilot program that would bring an SUV to the Minneapolis Fire Department next year would follow similar moves made by other departments around the country.

A pilot program in Boulder, Colo., this year allows firefighters to use a pickup truck outfitted with basic life support equipment for some medical calls. Boulder Fire Chief Larry Donner said response times are about the same with the smaller vehicle as they were with a fire truck, though it’s cheaper to run the smaller vehicle due to fuel savings. A host of other cities are taking similar steps, including Ann Arbor, Mich., Memphis, Tenn., Spokane, Wash., and Billings, Mont.

Lakosky, of the fire union, said the pilot program could work in Minneapolis but it would depend on how it was done. His first concern was that it would mean sending fewer firefighters to a rescue.

“Let’s not reduce the quality of service by going from three firefighters [in a firetruck] to two in an SUV,” he said. He said he doubted an SUV could get to an emergency any faster than a fire truck.

Fire chiefs everywhere have faced a similar dilemma as fire counts fall.

St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler put it this way: “How many fires do we need to have in your city for there to be a fire ­department?”

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