As city and workload grow, Chaska gets full-time fire chief

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 10:55 PM

In many cities across metro area, work is becoming too complex for volunteer chiefs.

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Fire departments are facing a growing number of duties that can overwhelm a part-time leader.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Facing a growing population and increasingly complex work, Chaska's Fire Department has become the latest of more than a dozen metro cities to hire a full-time chief.

In addition to fires, firefighters now respond to medical emergencies, terrorism threats, vehicle crashes, wildland fires and natural disasters. The chiefs themselves are facing a growing number of duties that can overwhelm a part-time leader.

"It's become more than a volunteer chief can manage," said Nyle Zikmund, full-time chief of the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department since 1995.

Unlike larger metro cities with career firefighters at strategic stations, hundreds of smaller communities rely on volunteer departments with a part-time chief paid a nominal monthly stipend, with perhaps a full-time fire marshal to inspect buildings and promote fire safety.

John Wolff, Chanhassen's part-time chief, said that a decade ago, Minnetonka was the only west metro city with a full-time chief.

Since then, he said, Eden Prairie, Excelsior, Shakopee, Savage and now Chaska have established full-time positions.

"When you call 911, you want the best service possible," Wolff said. "So when the red trucks show up, you want them there fast and you want them there doing the right things. Managing that on a part-time basis is challenging."

The firefighters are essentially volunteers in what's called a paid-on-call system. Chaska has 40 trained firefighters who each receive $13.49 per hour when they're able to respond to fire calls. The current chief receives a $305 monthly stipend, plus the per-hour rate during emergency responses.

Assistant City Administrator Jeffrey Dahl said Chaska has been studying the need for a full-time chief since 2009, and city council members decided to create the position in the 2013 budget they approved last month. Dahl said that the need was clear and that the decision was not controversial.

"As we grew from 4,500 households in 1990 to more than 10,000 today, we're up to around 1,000 fire calls per year," Dahl said. "That's only going to increase as housing comes back and commercial grows as well."

The southwest metro city recently hired Tim Wiebe, its public works director, as the first full-time chief in the Chaska Fire Department's 141-year history. Wiebe will take command on Feb. 4 with an annual salary of about $90,000.

Chaska has nearly 24,000 residents, and Dahl said it was probably the largest community in the state without a full-time chief.

That distinction now likely falls to neighboring Chanhassen, which has nearly the same number of people and a similar growth rate.

Chanhassen has hired a consultant to assess its staffing and equipment needs for fire and emergency medical services, Wolff said, including whether to hire a full-time chief.

The driving force

Other cities that have made the transition to career fire chiefs during the past decade include Rogers, East Bethel, Ham Lake, Long Lake, Eagan and Forest Lake, Zikmund said. "The amount of administrative work that accompanies a fire department in this day and age is mainly what's driving this," he said.

Another factor is the complexity of managing three or four dozen firefighters. Even though they are volunteers from the community, the firefighters must be hired, Zikmund said, and that entails recruitment, orientation, a physical ability test, background checks and a psychological examination. And then there's extensive training and the need to replace volunteers who move or quit.

"Back in 1981 when I started, it was 20 hours of training and I'm on the truck," Zikmund said. "New recruits today, it's close to 200 hours of training to start with."

Paid-on-call fire departments are an incredibly efficient model, Zikmund said, but cities are realizing that volunteers increasingly require the strong, full-time leadership of a chief to make everything function smoothly. The model works extremely well for cities that need to provide top service, he said, but don't have the "run volume" or the financial wherewithal to justify hiring full-time firefighters.

That's exactly how Chaska views the changes, said Dahl, even though creating a full-time chief position increases payroll in tough economic times.

"We see this as investing in the future," he said. "This is something we need to do."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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