Employers face challenges all over the economy in a tight labor market.
It’s not just traditional employers hurting for workers but critical emergency services Minnesotans depend on to fight fires and answer emergency medical calls: Volunteer fire departments are facing critical staffing shortages as calls for service go up while the number of volunteers willing to sign up dwindles.
Minnesota and its 775 fire departments statewide have the second highest proportion of volunteer and mostly volunteer firefighters in the nation, with more than 97% of firefighters in the state being volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Department Registry.
A recent $1.4 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is meant to help boost the number of volunteer firefighters statewide. But challenges like declining city budgets and climbing costs of equipment and training make it an uphill battle.
“We’re seeing more and more departments with empty lockers and we’re now at the point, in my opinion, where there’s a red flag,” said Jerry Streich, who has worked in fire departments for more than three decades and was a fire chief for about half that time at various Twin Cities departments. “Every community should be paying attention and focusing on their community emergency response to see what type of resources they need and how they can support them.”
Streich, who was brought on by the Minnesota State Fire Department Association (MSFDA) to helm their new recruitment efforts funded by the grant, said the increase in staffing challenges has been a gradual one.
Shortages have coincided with a significant increase in the role of fire departments in emergency response over the decades. Firefighters used to respond to fires, car accidents and the occasional cat stuck in a tree, he said, but calls for service have grown to include medical calls, hazardous materials response, pandemic response, and active shooter incidents, among other incidents they didn’t do in the past.
“I started in the 1980s in the city of Roseville and I was probably expected to go to maybe 200 calls a year. Well, over the course of 30 years, the city of Roseville now goes to 5,000 calls a year,” he said. “So that individual who’s volunteered his time is now expected to go to many, many more incidents and be much more technically proficient in things we never did before.”
Streich said fewer and fewer people have been signing up to volunteer at their local fire stations over the years, but the pandemic has accelerated that decline. Many people were laid off or given the opportunity to work from home and were, in turn, starting to re-evaluate how they spend their time.
Natalie Streich, the new head of recruitment and retention at the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department (and Jerry’s daughter), said the decline in volunteers also appears to be generational.
“From some of the research that I’ve done, it seems as though our younger generation — and I’m in this generation — doesn’t necessarily want to give up their time for free,” she said.
Many departments are transitioning away from the volunteer model and toward paid on-call work to remedy that challenge, but costs associated with equipment and training have gone up much faster than city budgets. A single fire truck costs $1 million today, and it now costs about $8,000 to equip one firefighter in protective gear.
Natalie Streich acknowledged the additional paid positions could lead to tax increases and put a strain on the budgets of those jurisdictions, but, she said, that is far outweighed by the dangers of a weakened fire service.
The $1.4 million grant from FEMA is meant to help develop a marketing campaign that could include billboards and radio advertisements, as well as modern-day recruitment policies and procedures for chiefs and recruitment staff across the state. About $600,000 of the grants will be awarded to departments statewide to help pay for personal protective equipment and health screenings for individual firefighters who were just hired.
Full-time departments face challenges, too
Even departments with full-time, salaried firefighters are not immune to staffing challenges.
The Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) uses no volunteers and is made up of career firefighters who are paid and receive benefits, but they’ve felt similar strains on their personnel.
Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said the department opens up its applications once every couple of years, and while they would previously get between 2,000 and 2,500 applications come in, the last cycle saw just over 700 people apply.
Tyner said he has about 450 firefighters including cadets going through training right now. The last time Minneapolis had that many firefighters was back in 2007, but calls for service back then totaled about 35,000 while this past year the department responded to more than 56,000 calls, or 20,000 more calls with the same number of personnel.
“The amount of runs, the amount of emergency incidents that we’re called to, seems to rise every year,” he said. “The fires and the rescues are pretty even, they don’t rise much every year but the emergency medical responses continue to rise at a very astronomical rate.”
Jerry Streich said the state’s fire departments have reached a turning point before the staffing situation becomes dire.
The city of Minneapolis received its own FEMA staffing grant last year of $4.6 million over three years for 15 additional firefighters who are going through training now.
Tyner said recruitment and diversifying the department has been a huge focus for him. Since becoming fire chief, he and his team have removed barriers from the department’s hiring process and moved their application online to make it more accessible. They also use a “Pathways” program to recruit from more underrepresented groups across the city.
“It helps when you’re responding to emergencies in those communities if they see somebody who they’re familiar with, or somebody who they can relate to, I think it helps to build trust in the fire department as a whole,” he said.