Firefighters within the Minneapolis Fire Department are criticizing their leaders’ response in the nights of unrest following the killing of George Floyd, challenging the fire chief who did not call in major reinforcements as gas stations, post offices and businesses burned across the city.
Chief John Fruetel relied on mobile units of firefighting crews and increased staff by about 10 during the height of the unrest. He did not follow St. Paul’s example in calling in more off-duty firefighters and, with one exception, did not call surrounding city fire departments for help.
The president of the local firefighters union, Mark Lakosky, said he was dumbfounded by the department’s strategy during its biggest and longest crisis in modern history.
“There were a couple of nights that some engines didn’t run and I know that fires were burning,” Lakosky said this week. “How many buildings have to be on fire before you call people in and start running every rig you got?”
He and other firefighters are also questioning the whereabouts of Fruetel, who has served with the department for 41 years and on Wednesday was nominated by Mayor Jacob Frey for another term as chief as they transition to a replacement later this year.
In a statement, Frey acknowledged firefighters could not respond promptly to fires until Saturday, four days after riots broke out, but said the reason was a lack of protection.
“Our firefighters responded to every single call they received — delays were not the result of insufficient fire department capacity, but insufficient law enforcement presence to ensure firefighters’ safety prior to the National Guard’s arrival,” he said. “Our firefighters displayed courage in preventing the fires from spreading to residential housing, and deserve recognition that there was no loss of life.”
Minneapolis firefighters responded to at least 69 fires between May 27 and 31, according to the city. More than 100 buildings were either damaged or destroyed by fire, according to data compiled by the Star Tribune.
In an interview Wednesday, Fruetel said he was proud of the department’s response that week, saying it was nimble and effective, and that they did not need backup from other cities.
“Some people had time to prepare for something in their communities because they watched what was happening in Minneapolis. We didn’t have that advantage. This just happened and within hours it expanded dramatically,” Fruetel, 67, said. “Once we had security secured for our firefighters, I thought it worked out very, very well.”
Instead of dispatching crews from the city’s strategic information center, Fruetel was out on the field during much of the week, driving back and forth between fires and relaying decisions from the ground.
Lakosky questioned that decision. “I don’t know how you assess the big picture if you’re not out where all the cameras are and where all the information is flowing in.”
But Fruetel said that it was better to be down on the ground looking out for firefighters rather than at the information center.
“I felt that I needed to be out on scene to actually help with ensuring the safety of the firefighters,” he said.
Fruetel was on the phone being interviewed live by CNN’s Don Lemon as flames burst from the Third Police Precinct building May 28. “Chief, you said you’ve had a number of fires in the area. Your department is stretched thin,” Lemon told Fruetel.
“It’s a challenging time for us right now, Don, I’ll be honest with you,” Fruetel responded. “And everybody is working really hard and we’re doing it a little bit short-staffed because of the way we’ve defined our response at the present time.”
The response was drastically different in St. Paul, which saw fewer fires and days of devastation. The St. Paul Fire Department brought in dozens of additional firefighters on overtime pay, bringing their staffing to almost 200 firefighters between May 28 and 31, according to St. Paul Deputy Chief Roy Mokosso. It also called in crews from Roseville, Maplewood, Woodbury and other jurisdictions. Fire Chief Butch Inks sat alongside Mayor Melvin Carter in the emergency operations center for much of the week receiving and prioritizing calls.
“The St. Paul firefighters felt very confident in the resources that our administration gave us,” said Mike Smith, president of the St. Paul Firefighters Local 21. “We were well-prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
St. Paul crews were ready to assist Minneapolis, Smith said.
“For the amount of fires that they had Wednesday, Thursday, Friday [and] Saturday, I’m surprised that St. Paul wasn’t called in to help them,” he said.
Like St. Paul, Minneapolis used a “task force” model that included a combination of fire and rescue vehicles and that allowed them to move through blazes quickly, Fruetel said. The department used about four task forces to respond to fires; St. Paul formed seven.
That was in part due to the safety of the firefighters, who were pelted with rocks and bottles as they attempted to fight some of the biggest fires; Fruetel told Lemon the windows on his own car were busted by rocks as he surveyed the scene. Response to some fires was delayed until law enforcement agencies secured the area.
Still, other firefighters were eager to help but were never called upon, Lakosky said.
On May 29, firefighters from Station 8 on 28th Street and Blaisdell Avenue reached out to Lakosky wondering why they weren’t being dispatched as a post office burned just blocks away on 31st Street.
“I had guys calling me: ‘Why aren’t we going? Why are we sitting here?” he said.
Fruetel said there was one callback for additional firefighters the night before the precinct burned, though Lakosky disputed how many firefighters showed up and whether they were actually used. The department then staffed up from 110 to 120 firefighters each consecutive night.
Firefighters from Edina were also called in to help with one unrelated fire near 58th Street and Xerxes Avenue, Fruetel said. Two additional task forces made up of other partners were organized but never used.
“We did not request them because we didn’t feel the need,” Fruetel said.
Council Member Linea Palmisano, chair of the city’s audit committee, said Wednesday that she felt the fire department was limited in its response because it lacked enough security. She said she wants the department leadership to debrief and learn from the days after Floyd’s death to prepare for future unrest.
“We need to take a very systematic look at how communications broke down across three shifts,” she said. “It sounds like there might have been some serious communication problems within the fire department, and I’m looking to get that corrected.”
Post offices, gas stations, pawnshops and a large apartment building under construction were set ablaze during the middle of confrontations between protesters and police that week. Dozens of households had to be evacuated.
On one night, an entire apartment building in south Minneapolis was evacuated as an O’Reilly Auto Parts and Family Dollar were engulfed in flames. Firefighters did not arrive to extinguish the fire until about two hours after neighbors called 911.
“I don’t understand our response model anymore,” said Lakosky, who responded to the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007 and the tornado that swept through north Minneapolis in 2011.
One fire captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said firefighters were “in tears because of frustration and shame and anger” by the end of the first week of unrest. Morale is low, he said, and the department as it stands is a “very frustrating and dispiriting environment.”
“It was harrowing, if you think about seeing the city that you live in and or serve burning,” he said. “A lot of the people took personally that we failed the citizens.”
Star Tribune data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.