Lino Lakes police officers will soon suit up as the city's firefighters.

In a still unusual but increasingly popular move for Twin Cities metro cities, the north metro community of 20,000 is cross-training all 25 of its police officers as firefighters. Officers will carry firefighting gear, breathing apparatus and carbon monoxide detectors in their patrol SUVs. If a fire emergency flares up in the city, they'll call for backup, take off their gun belts and step into the firefighting gear.

The city will also have an additional 20 paid on-call firefighters.

Most Minnesota cities rely on volunteer or paid on-call firefighters, but they're getting harder to find. In response, some suburbs, including Roseville and Brooklyn Park, are hiring more full-time professional firefighters. A few others, including Lino Lakes, are asking employees to multi-task.

Half of New Brighton's 28 police officers are paid on-call firefighters, responding to fires when off-duty. A dozen members of Blaine's city staff, including code-enforcement and public-works employees, are on its volunteer fire department — it's part of their job description.

In Woodbury, 13 police officers are cross-trained as firefighters. Much like their Lino Lake counterparts, they carry fire gear in their squad cars and respond to fires while on police duty.

Lino Lakes' City Council decided to exit the collaborative Centennial Lakes Fire District after a dispute with fellow members Centerville and Circle Pines.

"We've had a fantastic response from our staff," said Lino Lakes Public Safety Director John Swenson of the strategy. "Everybody that is a police officer for us has voluntarily expressed an interest in fire training. None of our staff has been required to do it. They see it as an opportunity to provide a very efficient and effective emergency response model."

The first group of officers attended firefighter training Wednesday. Officers also will receive hazardous-materials training, because both Interstate 35E and 35W, which carry a lot of large-truck traffic, run through the city. Lino Lakes police officers will also act as medical first responders.

Officers are getting an extra $2,700 a year to wear multiple hats, Swenson said.

Actual fires are rare

Lino Lakes Police Capt. Wayne Wegener, who is going through firefighter training, said the change makes sense. "We are already going to the calls anyway," he said. "For me, to respond to the calls with additional training, it is nothing more than a benefit."

Of the 618 calls the fire department responded to in Lino Lakes last year, few were actually fires. Eight were structure fires, 10 were vehicle fires and four were grass fires, Swenson said. Many of the other calls were false alarms, carbon monoxide calls and medical calls, which police and ambulances also respond to.

Cross-trained police officer-firefighters can handle hundreds of types of calls, including carbon monoxide alarms, suspected false alarms and many of the medical calls, Swenson said. "Rather than sending out an entire fire crew, we are able to do that as police officers with firefighter training," he said.

If a catastrophe calls for a full complement of police and firefighters, mutual aid agreements with neighboring cities will kick in, Swenson said. Lino Lakes will spend $400,000 on training and start-up costs in 2015, with the new combined police and fire department becoming fully operational in January 2016. That's also when the city's agreement with the Centennial Lakes Fire District officially ends.

Other cities' experiences

Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund said the multi-tasking model has worked for his department. Blaine employees handle day fire calls with a small fire truck parked in a garage at City Hall.

"Nationwide, structure fires continue to decline," he said. "Seven to 10 percent of their time is actually spent on fire and emergency response. What do you do with the other 90 percent?"

Blaine's fire responders also serve as housing inspectors, fire inspectors, code enforcement officers and public works employees.

In some instances, the firefighting aspect can make the city job more appealing.

"Code enforcement — that is pretty negative," Zikmund said. "It makes it positive, helping people with medicals and fires."

Zikmund said his department responds to 1,150 calls a year, with only about 40 of those involving actual fires.

Starting in 2005, Woodbury began cross-training many of its police officers as firefighters or paramedics. The city now uses an array of talent to battle blazes — full-time firefighters, paid on-call firefighters and cross-trained police officer-firefighters.

"Our police officer-firefighters go directly to the scene with their gear. They are usually ready before the first engine arrives," Woodbury Deputy Public Safety Director Todd Johnson said.

Fire response times have actually improved under the new model. In 2004, fire crews got to the scene within nine minutes 54 percent of the time. In 2013, that rose to 96 percent, meeting goals set by the city.

"It's the first time we've met or exceeded that standard," Johnson said. "It's a good fit for us now. The citizens are getting a lot of bang for their buck."

The city of New Brighton recruited police officers to be paid on-call firefighters 14 years ago. Off-duty officers make $14 an hour when working as firefighters — the same as other paid on-call firefighters.

"We have no one sitting in our public safety center waiting to go on a fire call," New Brighton Public Safety Director Bob Jacobson said. "We respond to pagers.

"We save a lot of money that way compared to other cities. … So far, we haven't had any issues with burnout or stresses of the job. We have a very committed group."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804