Three years ago, fire chiefs from Ramsey County’s cities agreed that saving lives was more important than observing municipal boundaries.
Leaders from nine fire departments including St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood agreed that the closest fire crews — regardless of city limits — would automatically respond to a confirmed structural fire or cardiac arrest, rescue calls that were classified as time-sensitive.
Since then, firefighters in the county have crossed into other cities a little more than 100 times in a collaborative effort that was recognized with an award from the Humphrey School of Public Policy.
But now the St. Paul Fire Department wants to pull out of the “closest-unit” agreement because, St. Paul officials said, they bear “a disproportionate burden” for the suburbs — a contention hotly disputed by some suburban leaders.
The St. Paul City Council will take up the question Wednesday on whether to terminate the agreement in April and open the door to negotiating “new agreements for fire services under which the Fire Department would be compensated for its time,” according to city documents.
St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks wrote to suburban departments in late January to announce plans to leave the agreement. The closest-unit agreement also includes fire departments in Falcon Heights, Little Canada, New Brighton, North St. Paul, White Bear Lake and the Lake Johanna department that serves Arden Hills, North Oaks and Shoreview.
“The St. Paul Fire Department is focusing on the needs of our community — the residents, the businesses and visitors of St. Paul,” said Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso.
He noted that St. Paul firefighters responded to more than 50,000 calls last year and that those numbers are rising.
While other mutual aid agreements will remain in place in the event of a catastrophe or large fire, Mokosso said that individual jurisdictions “should respond to emergencies in their communities and remain responsible for being the first-arriving units.”
St. Paul would continue to help suburban fire departments when asked or when help is triggered through other mutual aid agreements.
Suburban leaders are taking issue with the claim that they take more than they give. They also note that it’s only on the rare life-or-death occasion that the closest-unit agreement is activated.
According to statistics from the Ramsey County Emergency Dispatch Center that were released by the city of Roseville, the Maplewood Fire Department has helped its neighbors the most under the closest-unit agreement by crossing into other cities 45 times in about three years.
In comparison, St. Paul fire crews helped neighbors 33 times, followed by Roseville with 11 times.
In most instances, the fire department for that jurisdiction was only seconds behind the first crew on the scene.
Maplewood leaders are holding out hope the agreement can be salvaged. Mayor Marylee Abrams said she spoke with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Council President Amy Brendmoen and asked that leaders from participating cities meet before they undo the agreement.
Abrams said she fears anecdotal information is clouding the decisionmaking.
The closest-unit agreement resulted in only a tiny fraction of the 6,830 calls answered last year by Maplewood. But, she said, “those are pretty darn urgent calls” when they do happen.
“This agreement has been beneficial to all the cities,” Abrams said. “We need to discuss this rather than just throw this out.”
In a statement Tuesday, Carter said that St. Paul fire officials expect to continue working with their suburban neighbors “under renegotiated terms that are sustainable for Saint Paul taxpayers,” and that they were together crafting “a modified agreement that meets all of our residents’ and businesses’ needs, with the goal of having new agreements in place in time to continue this service uninterrupted.”
“We were a bit surprised by St. Paul’s desire to withdraw, since we believe the program was working well for all involved,” said Maplewood Public Safety Director Scott Nadeau in a statement.
“We are proud of our investment in Maplewood’s fire/EMS in terms of staffing, training and overall resources.
“In the spirit of Minnesota-style cooperation, we are confident that public safety is served best when regional partners work together.”
Roseville Fire Chief Tim O’Neill noted that other mutual-aid agreements would remain among St. Paul and suburban fire departments, and that St. Paul is talking about ending only its participation in the closest-unit program.
Roseville firefighters responded to about 5,600 emergency calls last year and have received help from neighboring departments just five times in three years under the agreement, O’Neill said.
“I am not upset about this. I agree [St. Paul has] the right to leave the agreement,” O’Neill said.
“St. Paul fire administration had decided this is in the best interest of St. Paul residents. I can’t disagree with it.”
O’Neill said St. Paul does have a much larger complement of professional firefighters on duty at any one time compared with the suburbs, and that St. Paul typically sends four-person crews to emergencies compared with two- or three-person crews typically dispatched by suburban departments.
“In the suburbs, we are not able to staff to that level yet,” he said.
“It’s 100 percent St. Paul’s decision if they choose to get out of the closest-unit agreement,” said Lake Johanna Fire Chief Tim Boehlke.
“We think it’s a pretty good product. We think it’s a valuable service to our citizens and the neighboring communities as well.”