Facing a shrinking pool of paid on-call firefighters and high turnover rates, two suburban fire chiefs want to add more full-time professional staff.
Brooklyn Park Chief Ken Prillaman plans to ask the City Council to hire 18 full-time firefighters in 2015, increasing the ranks of full-timers to 26. Prillaman said the move would actually save the city $1.5 million over the next decade. The city plans to spend $3.89 million on fire service in 2015.
Roseville Fire Chief Tim O’Neill wants to hire six full-timers in 2015 in a more phased approach, with the goal of employing 21 full-time firefighters over the next five years. That plan would mean a projected $75,000 increase in the $2.1 million annual budget for 2015, he said, but would ensure that the city answer calls quickly.
Both cities would maintain some paid on-call firefighters.
Like most Minnesota cities, Brooklyn Park and Roseville now rely primarily on paid on-call firefighters, with a few full-time employees in leadership positions.
Of the 20,600 firefighters in the state, only about 2,000 are full-time, said Steve Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education. That model worked well generations ago, but it’s become unsustainable in some larger suburbs, he said.
“There are certainly times of the day in a number of cities where it’s really hard to find anybody to answer the call,” Flaherty said. “There are a lot of departments looking at those situations.”
Flaherty said he wouldn’t be surprised to see other cities also consider more full-time staff.
The amount of training and skills required to do the job has increased over the past few years.
Now firefighters are expected to respond almost instantaneously and to be experts in medical triage, hazardous materials and high-stakes rescue, as well as putting out fires. Both cities train their firefighters as EMTs or paramedics and dispatch crews to all emergency medical and rescue calls.
About 70 percent of the calls Roseville firefighters answer don’t even involve fires. This week, for example, they trained in elevator rescues. “It’s now an all-hazards response organization,” said Brooklyn Park Chief Prillaman.
A decade ago, the public tolerated a 10-minute response time, but that’s no longer the case, city officials say. Roseville has an average on-scene time of 3½ minutes. Brooklyn Park’s is 4½ minutes.
“Our community expects a very quick response and very professional, well-trained firefighters to solve their problems immediately,” O’Neill said. “Expectations have changed dramatically. Now we are going on fire and medical calls. We have to be experts on auto extraction, biochemical attacks. We do more sophisticated rescues.”
O’Neill said the 60-person, part-time staff is capable, astute and hardworking, but it costs a lot to hire, train and maintain that many people. Firefighters undergo hundreds of hours of training each. The average Roseville paid on-call firefighter starts in his or her mid-20s. More than half leave the department between their third and fifth year — taking all that training with them.
Even still, it’s become more challenging to find recruits. O’Neill points to societal changes.
“Most families are two-income families. Their jobs aren’t 40 hours. They are 50 or 60 hours. Throw a commute on top of that, and it’s very difficult,” O’Neill said.
New federal health care mandates could also drive the push to hire full-timers, said Jeff Lunde, Brooklyn Park’s mayor. Employees working 30 or more hours per week now must be offered health care.
Brooklyn Park employs 72 paid on-call firefighters. Hiring full-timers would save money, increase efficiency in training, improve firefighter safety and quality of service.
Chief Prillaman said it costs the city $6,000 a year to outfit and train a firefighter, regardless of the number of hours worked. He predicts that the number of paid on-call firefighters needed to meet demand will rise to 120 in the next two years. Like Roseville, his city struggles with high turnover.
“Half the organization has less than six years of experience,” he said.
It’s more cost-effective to have a staff of about 60 — 28 full-timers and about 30 paid on-call firefighters — than 120 of the latter, he said. “I believe strongly in this model,” he said. “I think it’s in the best interest of the community.”
Said Lunde: “With a smaller, full-time team, you have people who are fully trained who practice their skills every day. The savings is dramatic over 10 years.”