Minneapolis needs to respond to Fire Department weaknesses.
(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the city of Minneapolis by a consultant, this editorial incorrectly stated the number of days Minneapolis Fire Department personnel, including firefighters, were out sick during a three-year period. The correct total figure for firefighters was a three-year average of 87 hours per year, or about 3.6 sick days a year for each firefighter.)
As Minneapolis city leaders make budget choices for next year, Fire Department staffing should be a major priority.
Two recent evaluations of the department explain why. An independent consultant's report noted the ''inability to maintain adequate staffing and cover necessary overtime'' and ''increasing sick-time usage, injury rates and overtime costs'' as problems. And an internal study released in April also raised concerns about staffing levels that have steadily dropped since 2001.
In an interview last week, Fire Chief John Fruetel said that Minneapolis has 92 firefighters on the job each day, while the national standard for similar-sized cities is 96. He'd like to increase his daily roster to 100 over the next five years, which would mean adding about 30 firefighters to the current force of 388.
Adding that number would move the department closer to a goal of improving response times in emergency events to five minutes or less 90 percent of the time. Currently, that happens about 82 percent of the time.
Last year, the mayor and City Council approved laying off 10 firefighters to help balance the budget. After pushback from the public and firefighters, they reduced the number to six, all of whom returned to work this week after the city received a federal public-safety grant that will cover their salaries.
Both the internal and external reports on the department also noted excessive overtime. Last year, the department had more than $1 million in overtime pay. And the consultants documented "unusually high" time off for sick, family and emergency leave -- especially on weekends.
Similar departments average 60 to 96 hours of sick leave per year, compared with 292.2 hours in Minneapolis. The city, department and union leaders need to get a handle on that problem, perhaps by putting in place a system for paid time off similar to those used by many private employers. Adding firefighters to the department also should help cut down on overtime costs.
Consultants also reported that about half of the city's 19 fire stations are in poor condition, noting that many have not made adequate accommodations for having both male and female firefighters. Fruetel takes issue with that finding, arguing that though some of the buildings are older, they are still in good shape. The chief and council members said they want more information about the consultant's criteria for assessing its facilities.
Correcting some of the problems identified in the reports would require more spending at a time when additional dollars are tough to find. The state cut aid to Minneapolis last year, and local property taxes didn't increase. As a result, the department is wisely considering ways to raise additional revenue through fees for some its services.
Despite the challenges it faces, citizen satisfaction with the department remains high. In surveys of residents who had contact with the fire department staff from 2001 to 2008, respondents from various neighborhoods reported between 90 and 100 percent satisfaction with fire services, with an overall rate of 97 percent.
Still, as both reports confirm, there are a number of areas in the department that merit attention.
Within the next two weeks, the chief and council members expect to get more information from the consultants. When those questions are answered, city and department leaders should move quickly to develop a strategic plan to make the department more efficient and even more responsive.
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