Huddled around a lab table in a Minneapolis North High School science classroom, a group of students in hospital gowns and gloves giggled nervously as their instructor pointed to something pink and meaty in a metal tray.
This pig’s heart and lungs, she said, look a lot like yours and mine. A couple of the braver students tentatively put their fingers into the lab tray and started rattling off questions: could someone’s lung get punctured? Is it possible to have two hearts? What’s that gross, dark-colored goo?
Across the room, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel smiled. The North High students are among the first to participate in a training program fire officials see as essential to getting more young people of color interested in joining a department that’s currently 71 percent white. In these kids, who could be certified emergency medical technicians by the time they finish high school, Fruetel sees the future of his department.
“For us to be really, truly effective, our makeup needs to reflect the community we serve and diversity plays a large part in that,” he said. “It would be awesome for me if I could see one of these kids, who are a junior or senior, someday become a firefighter, stay in the community and take care of the community.”
Minneapolis, like many cities, has long offered an “Explorer” program for teens and young adults interested in learning more about the fire service. Those students meet monthly for instruction in first aid, tours of fire stations and a close-up look at what goes into being a firefighter or emergency responder.
But with a mayor and council increasingly focused on eliminating Minneapolis’ considerable racial disparities in education, work and wealth, the Fire Department began in 2014 to step up its own equity efforts.
Path to certification
The “Emergency Medical Technician Pathway” program debuted during the last school year at south Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School. About a dozen students, all seniors, enrolled in the program. Two are now pursuing careers in the medical field.
Last fall, the department expanded the program to juniors and seniors at Roosevelt, and added a second class at North High. The City Council approved $100,000 in funding for the program in the 2016 budget.
Erica Prosser, a project coordinator with the Fire Department, said the goal is to get students on a two-year track where they can work up the rungs of emergency medicine.
Those who sign up as juniors get a year of preparatory classes under their belts — like the pig dissection lab at North — and can become a certified first responder. After another year of study and hands-on practice, seniors will get coaching to take a test for the next level of certification: emergency medical technician, or EMT.
After that, Fruetel said, the hope is that they’ll want to apply for the jobs with the Minneapolis Fire Department.
The chief said he wants to see more of a shift in the department’s demographic breakdown, which has been largely unchanged for the last five years.
Of the 415 firefighters currently working for the city, 71 percent are white, 14 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are American Indian. Another 2 percent are Asian and 3 percent are multiracial.
Attracting women is also an ongoing challenge — just 12 percent of the department is female, down from 15 percent four years ago.
In addition to the department’s goals to add more women and people of color, it also needs more young people. More than 50 city firefighters will reach mandatory retirement age in the next decade. By 2020, just over one-third of the department will be eligible for retirement, a number that jumps to 61 percent of the department in 2025.
Meanwhile, firefighters are responding to more calls, particularly for rescue and medical emergencies. The number of those types of calls has been rising steadily, up nearly 32 percent between 2010 and 2015. In Minneapolis, firefighters serve as first responders to emergency calls, but Hennepin County provides ambulance and paramedic service.
Hennepin County EMS Deputy Chief Mike Trullinger said the county is working with Minneapolis on the high school training program because it will also benefit if more young people get interested, get trained, and stick around their hometown.
“When we look at it as a potential hiring point, it says that this far back in their résumé, these people have really been applying themselves,” Trullinger said.
Across the river, the St. Paul Fire Department has been running its own EMS Academy for young people ages 18 to 24 since 2009, plus two separate training programs added on later. Each phase of the training is paid and comes with increasing responsibility and compensation.
Gerone Hamilton, the St. Paul Fire Department’s chief of community relations, said the city is already seeing successes: one EMS Academy graduate is now a full-fledged firefighter and five more are in the city’s fire academy.
Hamilton said the department started the program because many of its new hires were coming from suburban areas, where young people could get on-the-job training with volunteer fire departments. Kids growing up in the city, meanwhile, would have to shell out hundreds of dollars to get the same type of training.
“In 2009, the city and the Fire Department saw a need to try to bridge that gap for people within the city,” he said.
Back in Minneapolis, the North High students are earning both high school and college credits for participating in the program. A few who completed the “pig lab” — identifying the pig’s organs and taking turns using a bag respirator to inflate its lungs — said they’re undecided on what they’ll do after school.
Ashawn Glen, 18, said he wanted to be a lifeguard until he realized he could learn more and make more money as an EMT. Now, he said, he wants to be a carpenter armed with lifesaving skills.
“I want to be certified in everything: EMT, volunteer firefighter, electrician,” he said.
Fruetel said he’d be happy to see program participants get interested in working as paramedics, police officers, doctors or nurses — though new firefighters would be the biggest win.
“If out of this, I could grow some of my own firefighters, it would be just like planting a garden,” he said. “And that would be awesome.”