Strains noted in Minneapolis Fire Department

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2012 - 8:11 AM

Report raises concerns about low morale, aging equipment and staffing in Minneapolis department.

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Fire Station 6 in downtown Minneapolis is one of the city's newest fire stations. A consultant's report said nine of the city’s 19 fire stations are in poor condition.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune file

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The Minneapolis Fire Department is burdened with low morale, aging equipment and nearly half its stations in poor condition, according to a consultant's report obtained by the Star Tribune.

The department, faced with financial pressures because of city budget constraints, already operates with fewer firefighters than similar cities and faces impending problems from an onslaught of retirements, the nearly yearlong review said.

The city spent nearly $150,000 on the three-part study commissioned by former Fire Chief Alex Jackson in the wake of controversial budgets cuts last year that forced several firefighter layoffs.

Cam Gordon, a City Council member, said that fire officials and the council were hoping that an independent analysis of the department, comparing Minneapolis to other cities, could help determine the department's needs as well as explore innovations that might improve it.

The 193-page study, the second of three phases, was obtained under a Minnesota Data Practices Act request. The analysis said the department "has been able to meet the immediate needs for all but the highest risk fires over the past three years" but raised concerns about steadily declining personnel -- from 483 full-time-equivalent employees in fiscal year 2001 to 408 in fiscal year 2011.

As of last week it had 390 employees, including 383 sworn personnel.

The study documents earlier reports of "the unusually high" rate of time off for sick, family and emergency leave -- particularly on weekends -- within the department.

"Saturday is the single day of the week that experiences the most usage of unscheduled leave followed by Friday and Sunday," the report said.

Typically, it said, fire departments of similar size and character average 60 to 96 hours of sick leave per year, while the Minneapolis Fire Department averages 292.2 hours.

Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters Union, called the sick leave data misleading, noting some firefighters have taken many hours of approved, accumulated sick leave prior to retirement. He also said that because more firefighters are older, they have spouses and parents who are ill, and have taken approved family medical leave.

The report offers a laundry list of 40 recommendations, from training programs to a leadership development program and urges the department to initiate a recruitment and retention program to mitigate the impact of expected retirements.

Fire Chief John Fruetel won't comment on the report until the final phase is issued later this month. However Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn cautioned about the difficulty in accurately comparing the size of the Minneapolis Fire Department to other cities, saying different departments offer different services.

John Stiles, Mayor R.T. Rybak's spokesman, said the city is awaiting the third phase of the report, expected to offer long-term recommendations, "which will help us evaluate next steps."

Penn and Stiles downplayed the report's findings, saying much of the information was previously available to the public. However, City Council Member Gary Schiff, who has been critical of Fire Department cuts, said that many of the findings in the report were not widely known.

"I don't think the public grasps the severity of the problem," Schiff said.

A crucial statistic measures how long it takes firefighters to get to a fire, and it took more time in 2011, included in a separate report published by the Fire Department in April.

The department met the national standard for getting 14 firefighters to a first alarm fire in nine minutes and 20 seconds 90 percent of the time in 2010. But it fell to 79 percent in 2011.

Nine in poor condition

Many of the problems in the report appear to be related to the city's budget squeeze.

While most front line firefighting vehicles are in good or excellent shape, 35 other vehicles are in fair or poor condition, including a 38-year-old truck that hauls two hazardous waste trailers.

The report said nine of the city's 19 fire stations are in poor condition. Mostly built before women became an integral part of the department, 17 have a single set of bathrooms, showers, or both, and nine have awkward living arrangements with coed dormitories.

Fire Station 4, at 11th Avenue N. and 6th Street, was one of the stations rated in poor condition. Built in 1940, its size is "not adequate for current use." It has no sprinklers. There's inadequate space to don gear rapidly to go to a fire. The kitchen was described as "inadequate for cooking and eating." The boiler needs to be replaced.

Schiff, who has toured 12 of the fire stations, said, "Many are in terrible condition."

The consultants also expressed concern about the reduction in staff of the department's Fire Prevention Bureau, once viewed as a valuable asset in providing fire safety education to the public. The bureau "lacks a specific public education focus due to limited resources," the report said.

The study will be discussed at the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee meeting on July 11.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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