Is Shakopee safe from 'tragic' fire?

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2012 - 4:24 PM

The suburb's fire chief is warning of ominous signs, but the City Council and mayor are blanching at the costs of a fix.

Tensions are emerging between members of Shakopee's City Council and its senior staff over how much money the city needs to spend to adequately protect its citizens' lives and property in case of fire.

The council is flinching at the dollar signs attached to two major proposed hikes in spending associated with two growing needs:

• The increasing difficulty of covering daytime fires in a bedroom community in which many citizen firefighters either work well away from the city limits or are being barred by their employers from dashing out of the office all the time for fire calls; and

• The longstanding question of the need for a third fire station to cover newer parts of town -- a building whose $3 million pricetag would be dwarfed in the long term by the cost of running it.

The second of the two questions is complicated by the land-buying tendencies of the Shakopee tribe, which has swallowed up hundreds of acres of land that would normally yield tax base to help cover those costs.

Fire Chief Rick Coleman is warning of the possibility of "tragic" consequences to human life unless the city can provide rapid response.

The city is also nearing the point, he says, of needing to be reevaluated by a national organization on whose ratings the insurance industry relies to set rates. Shakopee already has a middling rating, he says, and if it gets downgraded, as it could given the changing circumstances, everyone's premiums could rise.

"Everything we do is time-sensitive," he warned council members during an informal workshop last week. "There's no, 'yeah, well, we'll get there when we get there.' "

Shakopee has what most people call a "volunteer" department, but professionals refer to it as "paid on call," since they do get paid and earn pensions. And its issues are the same as those of many suburbs: both Savage and Prior Lake for instance have built new fire stations in recent years.

The chief is recommending that the city start gearing up for a 2017 opening for a station in its Southbridge area, and that it consider a hybrid model in which it hires four full-time firefighters to ensure a quick initial response to daytime fires while the citizen firefighters make their way to the scene.

The city's average response time of 13 minutes is quite a bit higher than the nine minute national standard recommended for cities of Shakopee's type, he says.

Every minute counts, he adds. One recent townhome fire that leaped to the neighbor's house could well have been held to one unit if the response had been faster.

"Ten years ago we had nine people coming out of the industrial park from just two companies, which was a great response," Coleman said. "We ain't gettin' that no more. That was a lot of people for them to lose."

Tribal land buys mean that while the existing two fire stations cover around 5,000 households each, officials said, the available land for buildout to the east only allows for a much smaller number -- possibly thousands fewer -- which raises the cost of that station.

Mayor Brad Tabke said he isn't convinced of the need for a third station.

"I've heard zero complaints from people in Southbridge concerned about there being no fire station out there," he said. "I went around [in his campaign last year] and knocked on every door in Southbridge and not a single person said anything to me about a fire station."

Others suggested there could be a cheaper way of addressing the personnel question: How about offering a premium to the existing firefighters for daytime calls? Or how about lobbying businesses on the importance of releasing workers, or even compensating them for the time lost?

Kris Wilson, assistant city administrator, said she's a skeptic on the question of premium pay.

"It seems like you think we have a motivation problem, that they're available but just not coming. We can ask them that question, if there's more we could do to incentivize, but my hypothesis is, it's a dedicated group that doesn't have a motivation problem but an availability problem. The employer says they can't, or there are small kids at home they're watching, and no amount of pay will incentivize them to leave the kids."

The council agreed to leave in the 2013 budget $125,000 to cover a partial year's worth of four fulltime firefighters in case the alternate approaches don't work. That would jump to $275,000 the following year with step increases and the full year of pay and other costs.

It was not willing, however, to make an $80,000 down payment on staffing up for a 2017 fire station, and in fact moved that target date back to 2020.

The target date keeps getting pushed back after initially being set at 2003, though Shakopee's growth rate has plummeted since that time. Dissenters on that point were Council Members Jay Whiting and Steve Clay .

The discussion included some moments of tension, including an exchange between fiscally conservative veteran Council Member Matt Lehman and the fire chief over whether police could help the response times by racing to scenes and jumping into battle.

"The police should not go into a burning home," the chief said.

"It happens," Lehman said.

"Since 9-11 we have learned a lot," the chief said.

"What, there are terrorists in the house? I'm not making the connection."

"We've learned a lot about why so many first responders perished [in the Twin Towers]. They were too aggressive ... We have learned from that, and the education today is different."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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