Minneapolis fire officials, who long have pleaded for bigger budgets, may be finding a more receptive audience among some of the City Council's newest members.
In recent years, the department and firefighters' union has argued that a growing and aging population is straining its limited resources. Staffing levels are down from a decade ago, while the number of emergency calls is up. By one key measure, emergency response times consistently have been behind national standards with little sign of improvement.
City officials, however, have targeted the department with cuts or been cautious about approving major increases in the budget. Mayor Betsy Hodges' 2015 budget calls for a 1.5 percent increase to the Fire Department budget, with staffing levels held steady.
Now, some of the council's new members are showing an interest in reversing that trend. In a recent budget hearing, Council Members Andrew Johnson and Blong Yang pushed Fire Chief John Fruetel to offer a personal assessment of the department's staffing needs. And after hearing the chief's response — that he's struggling with surging overtime and injury costs he can tie directly to not having enough firefighters — the council members said they're not going to let the issue drop.
Johnson pointed to budget items like a holiday celebration and tourism marketing as things that are "nice to have" but says he sees public safety as a "need-to-have" expense.
"We're not properly staffing 911, and our firefighters are understaffed below safe levels," he said. "We need to take care of that first. That's our core role as city government."
The department's $60 million budget provides for 406 sworn firefighters. That's up slightly from a few years ago, when numbers dipped into the high 300s, but down considerably from more than a decade ago; in 2001, the department had 473 firefighters.
But the number of firefighters ready and able to respond to calls is actually lower. Departures and retirements pushed the staff size down to a low of 376 in July, and Fruetel told the council that includes more than 20 firefighters who are off duty because of injuries.
He said he could use 418 firefighters, rather than the 406 proposed in the mayor's budget.
"I think we need to have more depth in the department," Fruetel said. "I don't have the depth right now to take care of the impact of injuries."
Cost of claims has surged
Department statistics show the number of firefighter injuries actually has been on the decline for the past few years, dropping from 264 in 2009 to 176 last year. But in that time, the cost of workers' compensation claims has surged; Fruetel told the council that claims have doubled since he took over as fire chief in 2012, now reaching $2.4 million annually.
While the number of fires in the city is on the decline, the department's overall call load continues to grow. Five years ago, firefighters responded to 32,165 calls. By last year, that was up to 38,133. This year, officials expect the number to be higher than 41,000. Freutel noted that more and more of the department's calls are for medical emergencies, rather than fires. And more often than not, they're for people who have fallen and need to be pulled out of the kind of tight spots that can leave a rescuer with a serious back injury.
"It's not like I get called in and it's a little, 100-pound woman passed out on the floor," said fire union president Mark Lakosky. "It's usually a 400-pound, hairy naked guy, wedged between the toilet with a needle sticking out of his arm. And it's the top-floor apartment at the end of the hallway."
At the same time, Fruetel says his department's average age is on the increase.
With a smaller staff to handle the work, Fruetel has relied on firefighters working overtime shifts, and those costs have more than doubled since 2009, to nearly $2 million in each of the past two years.
"We are, without question, doing more with less," the chief said.
Fruetel is hesitant to draw a direct link between staffing and response times; he said obstacles like traffic, poor weather conditions and rigs out of position for training exercises have a more direct impact on those statistics.
But Lakosky, with the union, said the city's level of investment is directly related to how well the department does its job, and how quickly firefighters can provide help. He said decisions made several years ago to reduce the number of rigs and lower the required number of firefighters assigned to equipment are now becoming more clear.
Trying to meet standards
By one measure, of how fast the department gets 14 firefighters on the scene of a structure fire, the department has remained close to the national standard over the past decade, even slightly surpassing it during the first half of this year.
But by another, which measures how often the first responder gets to any type of emergency in 5 minutes or less, Minneapolis has struggled. The National Fire Protection Association target is for departments to meet that goal at least 90 percent of the time. Over the past five years, the department's percentages have been dropping, from more than 86 percent to 78.7 percent last year to just over 75 percent in the first half of 2014.
Maps provided by the department show firefighters have met the standard less than 50 percent of the time in 10 Minneapolis neighborhoods, most of them in the outer reaches of the city.
Lakosky, who tussled with Hodges on staffing issues during last year's mayoral campaign, said officials aren't doing enough to plan for the future. "They tout the growth of the city … but tell us, how many runs is enough to where you add back to this Fire Department? How bad do our response times have to be?" he said.
In a statement, the mayor defended her staffing plans, including proposals for new classes to fill behind retiring firefighters. "The investments I proposed for 2015 for cadet classes and recruitment are the best tools for building a pipeline of new firefighters to support the Fire Department's long-term workforce plan and to ensure the department continues to be strong into the future," she said.
Yang, chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, said he's not sure where other cuts could be made to expand the Fire Department's budget. But he said he's concerned that the current funding doesn't go far enough. "I certainly think they need more staffing than what they have now," he said. "My understanding from that conversation with the chief in council chambers was there's a sweet spot we need to reach, and we're not there."