When Greg Malmquist became a firefighter in Lake Elmo more than three decades ago, many volunteer fire department rosters listed just a handful of surnames. Sons served alongside fathers and brothers and uncles, and most often stayed in the department for decades.
“Times have changed,” said Malmquist, now the fire chief in Lake Elmo and the only full-time member of the department. Even after adding paid part-time, on-call positions in 2016, his roster — only half full — looks more like a “revolving door,” he said.
As recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters becomes increasingly difficult, several metro area fire departments have been forced to add full-time positions or are making plans to do so.
In a state that ranks second in the country for its reliance on volunteer firefighters — more than 97 percent of all departments have all or mostly volunteers — fire chiefs across Minnesota are seeking better ways to ensure 24/7 fire service as they try to market their openings.
At last week’s annual conference of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, Brooklyn Park Fire Chief John Cunningham called the issue a “mounting crisis” statewide, compounded by increased demands made of firefighters and health risks associated with the profession.
Minnesota ranks 45th in per capita spending on fire service, adding to the strain on small departments, said Cunningham, who is president of the state Fire Chiefs Association.
“For many years, we’ve been able to provide a core municipal service with minimum cost,” he said. “But now we’re dealing with the real cost that is declining volunteerism.”
Malmquist said it was always a matter of when they’d have to deal with a shortage. “We are realizing it’s our turn,” he said.
Before making the leap to full-time positions, some metro area departments have tried incremental changes. The first step is often the duty crew model, in which paid volunteers work assigned shifts rather than remain on-call all the time.
The duty crew system can help provide round-the-clock coverage at a fraction of the cost of full-time firefighters. It also creates a more predictable schedule for non-career firefighters, who often list the erratic time commitment as a leading reason for resigning.
More calls, fewer to respond
For many growing communities, even a duty crew can be a Band-Aid approach before resorting to part-time or full-time positions, said Judy Thill, fire chief in Inver Grove Heights.
“If you’ve recognized the problem in your own department, you’re probably already behind the 8-ball,” she said, adding that new recruits can require two to three years of training. When Inver Grove Heights was incorporated in 1965, it had 60 volunteer firefighters responding to about 200 calls a year; by 2017, the department’s 55 firefighters were heading out to 1,600 calls.
“We are already doing more with less,” Thill said. “And it’s going to get worse.”
Some metro area communities, including Eagan and Brooklyn Park, have recently hired strategic planning firms to help develop staffing solutions. Eagan’s firm recommended moving to a small career firefighting force, supplemented by but not dependent on paid on-call members.
The paid on-call system contributes to costly turnover and longer response times, Cunningham said.
“Now you are seeing communities ask those critical questions,” he said. “They have to decide, what is the level of service that we want to provide our residents?”
The National Volunteer Fire Council has been warning of the trouble in retaining and recruiting volunteer firefighters for a decade. Root causes include increased time demands and training requirements, jumps in call volumes and a shifting away from community involvement and volunteerism. People are less apt to stay in one place for their entire careers, and employers are less willing to let workers off to take a fire call.
Federal grants, including the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, offer funding to fire departments to increase or maintain the number of trained front-line firefighters. Since 2005, more than 40 such grants have been awarded to departments in Minnesota.
In August, Stillwater’s fire department — which combines full-time and volunteer firefighters — received its third SAFER grant, this one for funding more full-time positions. According to a 2017 report, the city’s firefighters were leaving after an average of 2.3 years, leading to costly turnover and a void in leadership and experience.
Though SAFER grants can be a lifeline for struggling departments, they can’t buy a long-term solution without community support, said Kevin Quinn, chairman of the Volunteer Fire Council.
As fire chiefs look to fill their roster, they must learn to market their department, he said. That’s a role that was nearly unimaginable when fire stations were community hubs, their ranks filled with generations of firefighters.
“It can be really hard for a fire chief, especially, to ask for help,” Quinn said. “But it’s the ultimate step to change with the times.”