Facing dwindling volunteer reserves, Eagan’s fire department launched a recruitment initiative in 2008 that included a flier showing eight firefighters with their full-time professions listed: doctor, floor installer, mortgage specialist.
Today, all but two people from that flier have resigned from the fire department.
“It’s a great example of what’s happened to volunteer fire service,” Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott said.
Scott is proposing a shake-up of a fire department where largely volunteer staff has dipped to lows not seen since the 1980s. While Eagan would still have volunteers, Scott wants to create five permanent full-time positions — keeping the one captain and four firefighters hired full-time with federal grant money in 2014. The change would follow other metro departments shifting away from relying on non-career firefighters.
Minnesota has the second-highest percentage of volunteer fire departments in the country at 97 percent, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Eagan’s volunteers, also called paid-on-call firefighters, receive $16 per call and $19 per training session attended, Scott said. Eagan has around 83 volunteers, down from 150 in 2010.
With the help of the full-time firefighters, Scott said Eagan’s response time clocks in roughly five minutes earlier than before.
Scott also wants to try using standby crews. Under that model, Eagan’s volunteer firefighters will sign up for shifts to staff a fire station instead of waiting for a pager alert.
But even that system relies on retaining volunteers. Eagan is averaging about 15 paid-on-call firefighters resignations each year, and saw a record 19 resignations last year. About a dozen firefighters have resigned so far this year, Scott said.
Tony Howe is Eagan’s most recent firefighter to resign.
Howe, whose day job involves working on fire alarm systems, spent nearly 10 years with the department before his final shift last week. He’s leaving after finding a home in Farmington, where he also hopes to volunteer. However, Howe said, staying on at a department is difficult when balancing full-time work or family duties.
Being on-call during nights and going to work the next day is much like having a baby, Howe said.
“There’s no off,” he said. “It puts extra stresses on family at home.”
A report commissioned last year by the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association found recruitment and retention to be mainly a rural problem: 90 percent of counties reporting a reduction in non-career firefighters between 2008 to 2012 were outside the seven-county metro area. Nearly 90 percent of Minnesota’s full-time firefighters are in counties with populations above 100,000, it said.
Many suburban departments that once counted on volunteers have been hiring more full-time staff.
In nearby Burnsville, the fire department discontinued its volunteer operation in 1995. It now has around 40 full-time firefighters. Maplewood went from five stations with 150 paid-on-call firefighters to three stations and a hybrid staff of full- and part-time firefighters. Eden Prairie moved to have full-time staff working weekdays.
“It’s inevitable that most departments of our size will have to go to some sort of staffed model,” Scott said.
Otherwise, he added, “there will get to be a time here when you don’t know if anyone will show up for a call.”