John Fruetel knows he's up against low morale and high scrutiny in the Minneapolis department.
Saying goodbye to the fire chief and welcoming a new one has become a familiar ritual in Minneapolis -- and it unfolded again on Friday as the City Council approved John Fruetel for the post hours before attending a retirement party for Chief Alex Jackson.
Fruetel will be the city's fifth fire chief since 2004, taking over a department struggling with low morale, budget cuts and criticism over its use of overtime and sick leave.
"These are interesting times and they are challenging, but I truly want to provide quality leadership," Fruetel said later, during an interview at Jackson's goodbye bash at the Bill and Bonnie Daniels Firefighters Hall and Museum in northeast Minneapolis.
Fruetel said he wants to minimize the effect of budget cuts, which have reduced the fire workforce 17 percent from a decade ago, to about 400.
"It's hard to maintain our level [of service] ... with the budget we have, and I'm hoping to look at opportunities to grow the department back," he said.
Fruetel, 59, retired in 2010 as assistant fire chief to Jackson and took a job as the city's emergency preparedness training manager. He will come back to the department as its chief on March 1.
The incoming chief declined to lay out his plans for the position, saying it's too early.
For now, Fruetel has been taking some cues from Jackson, who became a close friend after they joined the department within a year of each other 30-plus years ago. They were rivals for the chief job when the council chose Jackson, the city's first black fire chief, in 2008.
"We have been talking almost nightly," said Jackson, who plans to take a vacation and pursue stand-up comedy after leaving.
Jackson announced at the beginning of the month that he would retire. The decision followed scrutiny from the City Council over the department's $1 million overtime bill for 2011 and allegations of sick leave abuse on the force.
None of that appears to have frayed the relationship of the departing and incoming chiefs. Fruetel and Jackson were together Friday at the fire museum, joking with Jackson's sisters and grandmother about how so many people mispronounced Fruetel's name when he became assistant fire chief that they told firefighters to call him John Jackson instead.
(For the record, it's pronounced FREE-tul).
Baltimore City Fire Chief James Clack, who served for more than two decades with Fruetel in Minneapolis, remembers him best for his role in the emergency response during the 35W bridge collapse in 2007.
"We could have lost a lot more people than we did," said Clack, who was trained by Fruetel as a new recruit in the 1980s.
Fruetel also has won praise for leading emergency efforts during the tornado that hit north Minneapolis last year.
He's well-liked in the department, but many wanted him to speak up more against staffing cuts made under Jackson, said fire union president Mark Lakosky.
"His biggest challenge will really be to convince the mayor and to convince the council to try to hold the line," he added. Morale in the department, he said, is "junk."
An internal city survey recently found that 18 percent of the 141 fire workers who responded said they felt valued as employees. Just 3 percent said the department had enough people "to get the work done," and 8 percent felt confident about its future.
"The staffing isn't optimal ... the stress of needing to provide good service with limited people weighs on you," Clack said.
And there will be further challenges as more firefighters retire, Fruetel noted.
He added: "It's not going to be an easy road."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210