The most junior Minneapolis 'durgans' save lives and buildings with a combination of training and brute strength, but their jobs are on the line if funding is cut.
If you're on your back and turning blue, you want a man like Johnathon McClellan kneeling over you.
At over 6-feet-3 with plenty of muscle, McClellan, a Minneapolis firefighter, has the endurance and training to do chest compressions all the way to the hospital.
"You don't want to give up. You're praying, hoping that this person opens up their eyes," he said. "I've lost some; I've brought some back."
At such times, McClellan, 31, pushes away the worries about how long his job will last. He's one of 27 rookie firefighters who got layoff notices from the city last fall. Some budget maneuvering by the City Council staved off their departures. But they come to work knowing that they're on the bubble and that any further cuts in state aid could mean their jobs.
McClellan was so concerned that he and fellow rookie Floyd Walker turned out when the council passed the budget to see for themselves. "It shows that the time has come and passed where we're going to sit on our butts," McClellan said.
'Durgans and tramps'
The road to becoming firefighters was long for McClellan and 23 others hired in 2007 to start training. More than a thousand applicants took the city's written exam. They took agility tests, sat with veteran firefighters for interviews, then took lengthy psychological and physical examinations.
Some tests measured strength. A water-filled foot of fire hose can weigh up to 10 pounds, and firefighters commonly handle bundles of up to 100 feet of it. They also lug oversize chain saws or bulky cutters and spreaders to extricate people from vehicles. Some tests measure fitness for the stresses of living in a firehouse.
Once they were hired, six months of college prep courses and long days of hands-on training with weekly exams followed. Recruits learned to get past the claustrophobia of breathing through a mask and working in dark, tight places.
Then the class of 2008 hit fire stations that May. They're now "durgans," the Minneapolis department's traditional name for a firefighter, taken from the name for the new horse in a fire rig. They spend part of their apprenticeship as "tramps," fill-ins at stations for vacationing or sick firefighters.
Wallet inside out
They may be the last rookies that the 131-year-old department sees for some time. Chief Alex Jackson, in that post since mid-2008, has yet to be able to hire a single firefighter and doesn't know when he will be able to do so.
Yet simply maintaining what the department has, with around 400 firefighters, drivers and captains on the job, is an achievement in a year with 10 police recruits laid off. It's also a turnaround from 2003, when more than 40 firefighters were laid off, while no police were cut.
Some credit former Chief Bonnie Bleskachek, who got the council to agree to a minimum manning standard that means most fire vehicles have a full complement of four people. In 2008, with a staffing increase of about three people a shift or 3 percent, firefighters sustained 20 percent fewer injuries.
The council turned the city's wallet inside out to avoid fire layoffs in 2010. The department, which several years ago took on license inspections for larger apartment buildings, will add the city's new inspections of commercial buildings, earning $800,000 in fees. It will earn another $200,000 for boarding buildings, a sum that rises to $400,000 next year after private boarding contracts expire.
The council also earmarked almost $700,000 from its federal community development grant for fire equipment that must be used in eligible inner-city areas. Another $807,000 comes from the city's contingency fund, while low bids on the Camden Bridge repair freed $810,000 for fire protection while the bridge is closed.
"The council came through massively to keep those firefighters," Jackson said. "I don't like to see anybody go out the door."
Pikes, rams and babies
Like many kids, McClellan grew up envying the people on a fire truck and wondering how they got such jobs. He was training as an emergency medical technician at age 27 when he heard the fire department was taking applications and endured the lengthy screening process.
It's a life of 24 hours on and 24 hours off twice weekly, with three days off to compensate. His days often begin with raising the flag at Station 5 on Bloomington Avenue, where he's usually based. There's shopping for the meals firefighters cook as a group, sharing the cost. They clean the station daily and wash their trucks after runs, scrubbing and hanging hoses. They shovel snow around hydrants, do inspections, pump out flooded basements, check boarded buildings. They make more than 20 rescue or medical runs for every fire they respond to, discounting false alarms.
Two weeks ago McClellan and rig mates assisted a woman who'd gone into a tricky labor, her baby's umbilical cord preceding its head out of her uterus, until she could get to the hospital for a Cesarean birth. They also broke into a car that plowed into a snowbank and performed CPR in the busy street. "We saved that guy's life," McClellan said.
Their tools give a glimpse at the physical toll: Sledgehammers, pikes and rams for cracking into places where people are trapped or embers lurk; fifty-pound fans to evacuate smoke; lumber for shoring vehicles or buildings; compressed air bottles; buckets of sand to throw on ice; suits for subzero immersions or hazardous materials.
The married father of three said firefighters are trained both for thinking through the technical side and summoning the raw courage needed to head into the basement of a building that has flames shooting out the top.
"It's bring your A game 24 hours a day," he said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438