Fire departments in the Twin Cities suburbs are looking to hire full-time firefighters as interest in on-call service wanes.

Many departments say they must hire full-time firefighters for the first time or add more to their roster as call volumes increase and recruiting and retaining part-time firefighters grows harder, as it has over the last decade.

"It's becoming a lot more of a rapid transition [to full-time]," said T. John Cunningham, president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and fire chief in Brooklyn Park, which became a 100% full-time department last year. "By and large, Minnesota is playing catch-up with the rest of the country."

Across the metro area and the U.S., fewer people are signing up to be paid on-call firefighters — which means they can be paged to an emergency at all hours of the day — on a part-time basis due to busier lives and changing priorities. In response, more fire departments are moving to a model that mixes career firefighters with part-timers. Others are transitioning to a full-time department.

"It is a huge time commitment because you've got trainings ... especially that first year," said Jason Wedel, Prior Lake city manager, of being a part-time firefighter. "It is asking a lot, and we're just not finding folks that want to do that anymore."

Wedel said Prior Lake will hire 12 full-time firefighters this coming year and is already building dorms in preparation. The department needs to supplement its staff of 34 paid-on-call firefighters — a number that used to be 50.

Making the change can be expensive, so many departments are pinning their hopes on receiving the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the federal government, which aims to help departments hire more firefighters to "meet industry minimum standards and attain 24-hour staffing."

"[Getting the grant] means that we are going to be able to provide more consistent and better service to everybody in the city that calls 911," said Bloomington Fire Chief Ulie Seal.

Depending on which year the grant is awarded, it provides departments with full or partial funding to cover the salaries and benefits of a given number of full-time firefighters for three years. Some years the city is required to match the grant amount.

Last year, the grant paid for 100% of salary and benefits.

"That's very enticing for cities," Cunningham said.

More calls than ever

The Bloomington Fire Department found out it received the SAFER grant — which amounts to $6.2 million over three years — in late September and will use it to hire 18 additional full-time firefighters. Prior Lake is still awaiting word on the grant, though officials said they will hire 12 full-time firefighters either way.

Inver Grove Heights and Brooklyn Park were recipients last year. Lakeville is preparing to apply.

SAFER applications are "reviewed through a multiphase process," according to a spokesperson from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). On average, 15% of departments that apply each year get the grant

Judy Smith Thill, the fire chief in Inver Grove Heights, said that as the city grows and the population ages, more people are calling for help. While the fire department fielded 1,300 calls in 2016, that number climbed to 2,700 in 2021, she said.

The department got the SAFER grant last year and used it to hire three full-time lieutenants and six full-time firefighters, she said, in addition to the three full-timers already on staff. The grant provides $3.4 million over three years.

"It really pushed us into the future," Thill said. "It provides the citizens with now another crew in the city available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The city will put away money each of the grant's three years so when it ends, the savings will defray the cost of those full-time salaries, she said.

Thill said she thinks Inver Grove Heights will remain a "combination" department for the next five to 10 years rather than transitioning to all full-time. She believes there will always be people who want to serve the community by being paid on-call firefighters. The department treats all its firefighters as equals, she said.

Paid on-call firefighters receive $14 to $18 per hour in the metro, according to a small, informal survey.

Cunningham said Minnesota has lagged in investing in its fire service generally, in part because of a heavy reliance on paid on-call firefighters. The state has a "robust" pension program, but that long-term benefit just doesn't attract firefighters like it used to, he said.

Faster response times

Having some full-time staff helps departments address another problem: lagging response times, Cunningham said.

The added call volume has caused many departments' response times to increase and chiefs see that their department isn't meeting response time goals when they examine the data, Cunningham said.

Mike Meyer, Lakeville's fire chief, said the department wants to hire 12 full-time firefighters to add to the four full-time people — including the chief and assistant chief — currently on staff. The city is preparing to apply for a SAFER grant.

The full-timers would help the department meet its goal of responding to calls within 8 minutes at least 90% of the time, he said. For now, the department has a duty crew — a model where paid on-call firefighters work assigned shifts rather than remain on-call — as many cities do. However, that crew is averaging more than a 9-minute response time.

Meyer said the department hasn't discussed with the City Council what to do if the grant doesn't materialize — whether to hire full-time firefighters using city funds.

Several departments said having full-time staff also allows them to meet other goals in the community, such as performing fire inspections or running education programs for children.

The Savage fire department hired six full-time firefighters in July 2021, said Fire Chief Jeremie Bresnahan, and asked for funding for three more in the 2023 budget.

He noted that just 2% of fire department calls involve a fire. About 60% are medical calls, he said. Accidents, lift assists and gas leaks also prompt calls.

"The demand on the fire service and public safety is just increasing in leaps and bounds," Bresnahan said.

Though the city has managed to fund its current full-time staff through the budget process, the department will likely be expected to try for a SAFER grant if it wants to keep hiring, he said.

"That would be the fiscally responsible thing to do," he said.