Minneapolis firefighters are demanding that city officials increase department staffing levels, citing response times that remain below national standards.
The call for more hiring is a perennial one for the firefighter union, which released new city response time data at a City Hall press conference Wednesday. But the event also had a political bent, featuring sharp criticism of mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges as the union boosts her leading opponent.
Specifically, the union wants the city to hire 40 additional firefighters. A spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak, John Stiles, would not comment on whether they would be included in the mayor's August 15 budget proposal. The fire department said the total cost of a first-year firefighter is about $80,000 -- $3.2 million when multiplied by 40.
The new data show that the average overall response time has actually dropped one second to 3:58. But the union homes in on the percentage of responses under 5 minutes, which has continually fallen over the years.
The National Fire Protection Association sets a standard of arriving within five minutes on 90 percent of calls. Only 81.2 percent of Minneapolis EMS calls, which constitute a vast majority of the department's emergencies, met the five-minute threshold in 2012. That's down .2 percent from 2011.
In 2011, the department responded to 83.9 percent of fire-related calls in five minutes. In 2012, it fell to 80 percent.
"The Minneapolis Fire Department is not even close to meeting the national standard," said union president Mark Lakosky.
Fire Chief John Fruetel did not respond to a message seeking comment. In a statement, the department said that road construction, road closures, traffic, closed bridges and severe weather are major factors that affect response times. "It’s not a staffing issue," the statement said.
The department had 385 sworn firefighters in 2012, a figure that has decreased from a peak of 426 in 2008. That number is expected to increase in 2013 with the addition of a new cadet class.
Lakosky said that the boost in state local government aid payments could help pay for the additional firefighters they are seeking.
He also attacked Hodges, the city's budget chair, for the decreased staffing levels. "Hodges as mayor would be a disaster. I think the numbers reflect it," Lakosky said.
Hodges noted that every decision about the fire department was approved by a majority of the City Council. She also highlighted that average response times are under four minutes, adding that out-of-service bridges and storms impact times from year to year.
"The bottom line is we're providing great service," Hodges said. "And we do compare very well to other cities in the state."
She said she would be "open" to hiring more firefighters, but did not want to make a commitment until seeing the budget in its entirety.
Photo: Mark Lakosky speaks at City Hall Wednesday (Eric Roper)