The 15 Anoka County fire departments now recruit jointly, the first such effort in Minnesota.
When Jerry Streich became chief of the Centennial Fire District in Lino Lakes in 2008, he faced a common problem: too few firefighters on the trucks and infrequent, inconvenient training classes.
In fact, a 2010 survey found that only one of Anoka County’s 15 fire departments was fully staffed. Fire officials estimated that they would need to recruit 236 paid on-call firefighters over four years just to maintain existing understaffed levels, Streich said.
“When you have a common problem, why not find a solution for everybody?” he said.
So he created a countywide recruiting and training system with a full-time recruiter, paid for by a grant, and a common website directing potential firefighters to local fire departments. A six-month training academy using local fire department instructors and locations that began in August 2012 has 14 candidates attending its third session.
In the program’s first year, the 15 departments have hired about 70 firefighters, and 40 candidates are scheduled for the fourth training academy in January, said county recruiter Mike Schweigert.
The joint program is the first such countywide effort in Minnesota, said Bruce West, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education.
“I think Anoka County is onto something,” West said. “You will probably see more counties and departments getting together.”
West said the state board helps fire departments pay for candidate training to meet national standards for firefighters. He said many groups of four or five city departments train candidates together, but no county has all of its fire departments collaborating as Anoka does.
“Working in larger groups with larger numbers would be beneficial to everyone to train together because they will work together when they do mutual aid” responses by several agencies, he said.
West, a former president of the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association, said he hasn’t heard of other states with countywide recruiting programs. A query about the national recruiting picture went unanswered at the National Fire Academy in Maryland because of the federal government shutdown.
FEMA grant a big help
About a year ago, Streich won a $1.2 million, four-year grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the county recruiting system. The FEMA grant has covered the full-time recruiter’s salary, emergency medicine training costs and setting up a recruiting website, mnfirehire.com. The website directs candidates to their local department and to recruiter Schweigert, who ensures contact follow-up.
The grant also has paid for two, recently delivered recruiting trailers with promotional equipment and billboards. They are available to all 15 county departments for fire agency or community events. The trailers are booked solid for October, Schweigert said.
The program was launched in early 2010 after Streich went to a quarterly meeting of Anoka County fire chiefs.
“I presented the [academy] idea to them and showed the cost savings,” said Streich, who has worked with Anoka departments before. He said a few chiefs were skeptical until he won the grant, which pays for candidate equipment and some academy training.
Streich, 46, said he recruited fire officials Tim Gilsrud and Harland Lundstrom from nearby cities to help him organize the academy and line up about 30 instructors from area departments. The academy reduced training costs by more than half to about $750 per candidate and enabled cities to plan recruiting events before academy classes begin every January and August, he said. Training and equipping a new firefighter costs about $6,500, Streich said.
Fridley has sent three candidates through the academy. All passed and are on-call firefighters, said Fire Capt. Renee Hamdorf. She said the city has placed the recruiting trailers near City Hall on University Avenue for passing motorists to view, and also took the trailers to recent Night to Unite neighborhood gatherings.
Trailers attract attention