Shakopee is hiring a new fire chief and reorganizing parts of its Fire Department after a report identified glaring deficiencies with management, training and staffing levels — and a consultant labeled it the "worst department" they had seen in nearly two decades of consulting.

The report, from consulting firm Citygate Associates, was shared with the Shakopee City Council in February. It was prompted by a request from interim Fire Chief Mike Scott, who was hired by Shakopee in July 2023 after retiring as chief from the Eagan Fire Department, and made the report a condition of his employment.

Among the findings: problems that dated back years, prompted by a management culture that "exemplified ad hoc decisions, favoritism, no quality assurance [and] no annual operations or training plan."

Many programs were "missing, weak or not in compliance with state regulations." The training program didn't comply with industry best practices — or state and federal law — and firefighters' attendance at trainings was mostly optional, with no audit of who completed what.

"To say I was shocked was probably an understatement when I was told that there was no real training program and that we weren't training to state standards," said Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds, who called the department's training lapses "unconscionable."

Reynolds said it was clear that leadership has been lacking in the department for a long time, and the city is moving quickly to select a new fire chief as soon as June.

"We're going to bring in a leader with strong values, who knows the fire service and who has experience with larger departments," Reynolds said.

'Serious, sobering' report

Stewart Gary, a Citygate consultant, shared details of what he called a "serious, sobering report" with city officials on Feb. 19. Among the findings:

  • Staffing levels were insufficient to effectively fight a moderate, single-family dwelling fire or another "moderate incident."
  • Response times were described as "sluggish" — with six to eight paid on-call firefighters taking on most of the workload for the other 40 paid on-call firefighters. Only Fire Station 1 was regularly staffed with the department's four full-time firefighters; the second station was entirely dependent on paid on-call firefighters, making for slower response times on Shakopee's west side.

Citygate consultants spent three months studying the department and writing the report at a cost of $55,000. Several times, they told Reynolds that a change had to be made right away, and Reynolds agreed, he said.

An internal email dated Nov. 30 and obtained by the Star Tribune shows Reynolds told the City Council that a Citygate consultant had described the Shakopee Fire Department as the "worst department I have seen in my 18 years as a professional consultant."

The report recommended the department hire five additional full-time firefighters immediately, and detailed a plan to hire 23 additional full-time firefighters over three years at a cost of up to $1.7 million.

On a positive note, the report said that a "silent majority" of Shakopee firefighters wanted the department to have effective leadership and programs that followed best practices, Gary said, and many stepped up immediately to fix problems.

"It wasn't the way to run a fire department," Reynolds said. "Anyone who read [the report] would pause and say, 'Wow, we've really got some work to do.'"

Meanwhile, a separate investigation completed by Red Cedar Consulting and shared in December found additional problems: Some firefighters were not complying with the law or ethical standards; they were selling the department's old scrap metal to supply their petty cash fund, accepting pheasant-hunting trips from vendors and "double-dipping" or being paid by both the city and MnFire, a state-funded wellness program, for the same hours.

Leadership troubles

Reynolds said the department's problems stemmed from "an environment with subpar leadership over many, many years."

No one external was ever hired for leadership roles, so the culture never changed, he said. The Citygate report noted a "1990s department culture" and said employees "only knew the Shakopee way" of doing things.

"There were a lot of issues where things were [seen as] just OK when in fact they were against city policy and in some instances there were questions of whether they violated state law," Reynolds said.

Over the years, there were signs department leaders sometimes followed their own rules. Previous Shakopee Fire Chief Rick Coleman retired in December 2022 following an external misconduct investigation.

Earlier that month, a truck-driving instructor called police, reporting that a man and woman were "getting it on" in the back of Shakopee Fire Department SUV 1 — the chief's official vehicle — in the parking lot at Canterbury Park. The caller reported that the SUV sped away; no charges were filed in the incident.

More than a decade ago, another Fire Department leader, Alan Geis, was arrested and charged with fifth-degree drug possession after police received tips about suspected drug activity in Geis' garage. He pleaded guilty, served two days in jail and was placed on probation.

Changing expectations

Many of the Shakopee Fire Department's staffing problems reflect a broader regional and national problem, Reynolds said.

More departments are looking to hire full-time firefighters as interest in paid on-call service wanes. Departments like Savage and Prior Lake have already transitioned to a full-time staffing model supplemented with part-time firefighters.

Reynolds said he thinks that model — the "combination" department — is what Shakopee will eventually have, and it's what the report recommended. Ultimately, City Council members will have to decide what they're willing to fund.

Shakopee hired its first four full-time firefighters in 2013 and hasn't hired any more since then, he said.

"Shakopee is one of the lowest-taxed municipalities in the Twin Cities area and we certainly have the ability to invest in … our community's safety," Reynolds said. "My hope is that there will be broad support to make sure that occurs."

Albertville Fire Chief Eric Bullen, who is also president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, said many inner-ring suburbs have already gone to full-time departments. Suburbs farther out may be looking into it, though 97% of Minnesota firefighters are still paid on-call.

Moving forward

Scott, the Shakopee interim chief, said there's "a lot of pride and honor" in the department, which celebrated its 140th year in 2023.

When he arrived, his tasks included helping the department with the outside study, taking a fresh look at departmental operations, suggesting possible changes and helping pick a new chief.

"I think in general the department is ready for change," he said.

He's put someone new in charge of training, ensured all firefighters are up to speed and begun reorganizing the administrative office.

The department has hired a private company to help write and update its policies and procedures. Other projects include exploring remodeling plans for both stations and "right-sizing" the fleet of fire vehicles — and working to improve relationships with the Shakopee Police Department, Scott County Sheriff's Office and Allina, which provides ambulance service.

Shakopee is applying for a federal fire staffing grant and hopes to get Station 2 staffed by 2025.

"I feel like the department's really moving in the right direction," Scott said. "We're laying the foundation for the future."