Facing pressure to fully staff the city's 19 fire stations on a daily basis, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said in an interview this week that he would like to add 30 firefighters to the department over the next five years.

"That may not be doable," said Fruetel, who became chief in March, replacing Alex Jackson, who retired. "It's a goal to be established."

While 30 more firefighters would represent an 8 percent rise over the current level of 388, it still would leave the department with 59 fewer personnel than it had in 2001.

Fruetel's proposed additions do not include a handful of firefighters soon to be brought back from layoff or others who will need to be hired in the next several years to replace retiring firefighters.

City Council Member Don Samuels, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, reacted favorably but cautiously to Fruetel's proposal.

"I think it would be worth looking at and trying to achieve over time, but the economic constraints are still with us," Samuels said. "If we did this in this department and other departments we'd be back in our era of deficit spending."

But he acknowledged that staff and spending cuts have put the Fire Department under heightened stress in the past several years. "As the economy improves, our fire department and police department should be the first ones to get the relief," Samuels said.

Fruetel made the comments following an appearance Wednesday before Samuels' committee, where he discussed a consultant's report that evaluated the department.

The report noted that the department has fewer firefighters than do similar cities in the region and nationally, but Fruetel said consultants had difficulty finding a fully comparable city. Fruetel said that some fire departments perform emergency medical transport while Minneapolis firefighters respond to medical emergencies but do not transport patients.

Still, Fruetel told the council he has trouble staffing the department's 19 stations with a minimum of 92 firefighters on a daily basis because of the number of firefighters unavailable due to on-the-job injuries. He said he regularly meets the minimum level by hiring firefighters on overtime, and would prefer to have 100 firefighters per shift. A shift is usually 24 hours long.

In the interview, the chief said the extra firefighters would improve safety, raising the number of firefighters on some engines from three to four. It's a national standard that can make fighting fires safer and more effective, although many cities get by with three firefighters per engine on many days, according to the consultants' report.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224