Funding cuts imperil safety, Minneapolis firefighters say

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 14, 2012 - 11:00 PM

Reduced size of the Minneapolis Fire Department puts firefighters and the public at risk, legislators were told.

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Christie Nixon, one of the firefighters injured in the Walker church fire in May, spoke at Thursday’s hearing at the State Capitol.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Four Minneapolis firefighters, three of whom fought a major church fire in May, told a legislative hearing on Thursday that reduced staffing in their city's Fire Department endangered firefighters and the public.

Five firefighters were injured, one seriously, in the blaze that destroyed the Walker Community United Methodist Church. A news release promoting the State Capitol hearing, hosted by state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, said it would discuss how the injuries "were, in part, the result of cuts to public funding to fire departments."

But only one of the four firefighters said he felt cutbacks were a factor in the Walker fire injuries, but did not spell out why.

The others were more general, noting that the national standard for the number of firefighters on an engine was four, while the city's department only has three, making it more difficult to do the job.

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel attended the hearing but was not asked to speak.

He said afterward that the injuries at the Walker fire were not a result of understaffing in the department, currently at 392.

He said the department was first alerted by a smoke alarm in the church, and when fire was discovered by the first three firefighters to arrive, reinforcements were called in.

"Do I think we need more depth in the department? I think we do," he said. "Every chief would like to meet the national standard of four on every apparatus." But he said the city has "a quality" fire department.

Torres Ray and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis DFLers, decried state aid cutbacks and urged more funds for fire departments and other city needs.

Fire Capt. Joe Mattison, who suffered third-degree burns in the fire, said the city no longer has a first-class department.

Mark Lakosky, president of the city's firefighters union, blamed reduced staffing for longer response times.

Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff called for "a statewide investment" in firefighter funding. Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said she was grateful a recent federal grant was making it possible to call back six firefighters who were laid off.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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