The St. Paul Fire Department is struggling to respond to fires and medical emergencies quickly, and the fire chief said they do not have the money to add enough staff to keep up with an increased demand for services.
Meanwhile, fire district and deputy chiefs are among the highest paid employees in the city. They earned, on average, more than $35,000 each in overtime last year.
The overtime is “embarrassing” and “exorbitant,” City Council Member Chris Tolbert said. He, and members of the firefighters union, said the hundreds of thousands the city spends annually on supervisors’ overtime is resulting in less money for rank-and-file firefighters.
But supervisors say they play a critical role and if city officials cut their overtime, they would just end up paying for new staff to fill in.
Finance officials and an outside consultant will dig into fire department spending and staffing over the next year, after city officials questioned how money was being used. And Fire Chief Tim Butler has said the department is not meeting national standards for emergency response time.
City leaders hope the study, which is expected to cost $100,000, will help the department spend its budget — likely $67.8 million in 2017 — more efficiently.
St. Paul has the largest fire department of any city in the state, in part because it also provides medical transport to hospitals, unlike the department in Minneapolis. The job is increasingly busy as the city’s growing and aging population pushes demand for medical services up.
Mayor Chris Coleman is concerned with the department’s resources, from deployment of response teams to replacing equipment to overtime, Budget and Innovation Director Scott Cordes said.
“We’re not spending the resources in fire correctly and money is not being used to its fullest potential,” Tolbert said. “We need outside eyes on that department.”
Response times lag
Butler told city leaders this spring that the fire department lags behind national standards for emergency response time.
National Fire Protection Association’s guidelines say 90 percent of the time the department should be at a medical emergency in 5 minutes, and a fire in 5 minutes and 20 seconds.
St. Paul is taking about two minutes longer than that for structure fires, Butler said.
It is not unusual for a fire department to be one or two minutes over the standards, said Ken Willette, director of responder relations at the NFPA. Cities across the country are questioning how much they are willing to pay to get their time down to NFPA standards, he said.
“At the end of the day, that’s not just a dollars and number of firefighters conversation,” Willette said. “It’s a risk conversation. And, ultimately, that risk is transferred to the person who is in the building, waiting those additional two minutes for the fire department to arrive.”
A resident in a burning home in one part of St. Paul will have a longer average wait time than someone in another neighborhood, fire department staff said.
Butler said he knows which neighborhoods are likely to see a slower response. He can point them out the large map of St. Paul hanging on his office wall.
He also knows changes that could help close those gaps. He has a cabinet full of studies, dating to 1989, that outline ways to improve fire services in the city.
What he doesn’t know is where the money is going to come from to pay for the recommendations in this next study.
“I’m still trying to catch up from the past,” Butler told City Council members earlier this year. “The studies have told us for 30 years, ‘Your system is going to get overrun.’ Our system’s getting overrun.”
Best use of overtime?
As the department deals with the growing demand for service, overtime pay for supervisors has led to a schism between the Fire Supervisory Association, which includes district and deputy chiefs, and Local 21, the union that represents rank-and-file firefighters.
District or deputy chiefs in St. Paul had worked an average of 417 hours of overtime in 2016, according to city salary data through mid-October. Firefighters worked about 66 hours of overtime on average.
Fire stations have been understaffed during summer months, but money is still being spent on supervisor’s overtime, said Local 21 treasurer, Jeremiah Melquist.
“They are always the highest paid in the city, even higher than the deputy mayor, department heads, finance, everybody,” said Mike Smith, president of Local 21.
Supervisory Association President Stu Bestlandq said, “We need our people to fill the positions because they’re tested, promoted, certified and trained.”
Injuries or fatalities at fire scenes often are tied to a weak command system or inexperienced supervisors, he said. Some of the overtime is grant-funded, he added, and part of it is going to training and work on special projects.
The association’s labor contract says their overtime system was created to allow the city to eliminate three district chief positions.
The union offered to make changes to their overtime contract in past negotiations, but those changes were rejected, Bestland said.
The city previously considered adding supervisory positions to cover for people when they are sick or on vacation, and will continue to look into that as part of the upcoming study, Fire Department Chief Tim Butler said.
“The problem is, you can add a position to the department … but the additional person costs more than you will save,” Butler said.
Last year, St. Paul spent $430,942 on district and deputy chiefs’ overtime, according to city salary data. The average salary of someone in those positions, not including overtime, was $108,884.
Same staff, more demand
Over the past five years, the number of calls fire department staff have responded to citywide increased by about 27 percent, according to department data.
There are many reasons for the increase, Butler said: more people moving to the cities, an aging population living at home alone, and people relying on 911 to get to the hospital.
Meanwhile, the fire department’s daily staffing level — 114 people — has not changed since 2009.
Three stations spread across St. Paul house “supermedic” teams. Those stations have six firefighters on staff rather than the typical four, allowing them to respond to medical and fire calls at the same time.
It’s a more expensive staffing model but one that Butler, and many firefighters, would like to see expand.
Adding supermedic stations will help reduce response times, they said.
“It’s just a better use of resources — of people,” said Erik Mork, a paramedic and firefighter who recently rushed to the scenes of a heart attack and an overdose.
“The longer they’re down, the less likely they are to come back,” he said.