Unfortunately, Minneapolis and its mayor have tried to skimp on this vital need. Let's hope they've learned.
The facts are simple: When Rybak became mayor, there were 110 firefighters working each day at 19 fire stations; since then, the department has been cut by nearly 100 employees. Now, only 92 firefighters are working each day, a number that does not meet federal safety guidelines.
How did this happen?
This problem originated when Rybak's former Fire Chief Rocco Forte convinced the mayor that a city this size could be run with substandard crew levels. Forte's former boss, Tom Dickinson, testified under oath that it was necessary to maintain 110 firefighters to meet the needs of a city the size of Minneapolis. Yet Forte convinced Rybak that the department could be run on 92 people per day. History has proven him wrong. And our members have paid the price.
It doesn't take much to see that there is a problem. Just look to our neighbor to the east. Minneapolis and St. Paul are virtually the same size geographically. Yet, Minneapolis has 100,000 more residents and as many as 250,000 more people in the city during the day, commuting downtown for work or attending the University of Minnesota. The city also draws millions of visitors to major sporting and entertainment events each year.
But St. Paul has 40 more firefighters than Minneapolis and has more than 100 firefighters working each day. And while St. Paul suffered the same state budget cuts in local government aid as Minneapolis did, St. Paul did not cut its Fire Department.
Minneapolis firefighters respond to more than 35,000 calls a year. That's nearly 100 calls a day, one every 15 minutes. Seventy percent are medical emergencies that require a five-minute response to save lives. We cover more with fewer firefighters than St. Paul. It is no wonder that Minneapolis firefighters are injured at the rate they are.
However, the consultant's report on the use of our sick time contains a major factual error. According to official city records, on average our members have used less than 96 hours a year in sick time (less than four work days), which is average for fire departments around the country -- not 292 hours a year, as the consultant claims. It is absurd to think that our members have missed 12 work days a year. That is a slur on our membership that must be corrected.
Minneapolis firefighters appreciate the Star Tribune's editorial opinion that it is time to increase the number of firefighters. Just one year ago, Rybak and his City Council allies pushed for and got more cuts. Now, the city's own consultant recognizes clearly the need to improve fire safety by adding firefighters.
Contrary to Council Member Betsy Hodges' assertion, Minneapolitans are not getting "excellent" fire protection. Adequate fire protection is defined by a five-minute response time in fire and medical situations. We got to only 83.9 percent of all fires and 81.4 percent of all EMS calls in less than five minutes in 2011. I can assure Hodges that 2012 will be worse.
This is a matter of life and death. Last year at this time, we warned the public that this was a nightmare waiting to happen. Sadly, that nightmare came in full view of the public with the burning of the Walker Methodist Church. Six firefighters entered the Walker Church and were upstairs attempting to knock the fire out at its source. While up there, they called for the line to be charged -- for water to be put in the hoses they were carrying. The water did not come.
The fire was 40 feet away and moving toward them. They called several times to charge the line, and still no water came. Why? The city has inadequately staffed the rigs with only three people, and the effort necessary to bring water into a fire like that at the Walker Church required more than just one person manning the line.
The only way the Walker six got out was to crawl underneath the fire. There was no water. There was no way to fight the fire. The crew courageously crawled through the fire to get out. Eventually the water came on, but not before one of our firefighters was seriously burned. Her road to recovery will be long and painful.
Knowing these facts, what employer can in good conscience send its workers into such a situation? The city was lucky the Walker six all came out alive.
Hopefully, Rybak now sees the error. It is simply impossible to adequately man the fire department with only 92 people a day. To do so means that human lives are at risk. Not only firefighters' lives, but also those of residents, workers and visitors.
The Hennepin County and city medical examiner warned Rybak last year about the inadequate response time. It would be best now if Rybak and his council allies would simply acknowledge to the public that they made a mistake and restore the Fire Department to its rightful level.
Mark Lakosky is president of Minneapolis Firefighters Local 82.