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Minneapolis Fire Department report includes the good, the bad and the ugly

There was some good news, some OK news and some really bad news in a consultant’s $147,500 six-month study of the Minneapolis Fire Department.

Minneapolis Fire Department LogoAs it turns out, the really bad news came in the form of factual errors about the department’s use of sick leave. Those mistakes were corrected during Monday’s presentation to City Council members.

The report originally stated that annual sick leave in the Minneapolis Fire Department averaged 292.2 hours per person, or 7.5 weeks, which is three times the national average of 96 hours for Fire Department employees.

Whoops. That 292.2 figure actually was a three-year total, said Kent Greene of Emergency Services Consulting International, the consulting firm hired by Minneapolis. The correct number should have been 97 hours of sick leave per year, per person – just about the national average.

The error drew criticism from Joe Mattison, secretary of Local 82 of the International Fire Fighters Association of Minneapolis. “This report is not creditable,” he said. “Somebody needs to check these numbers.”

Fire Chief John Fruetel said he noticed the numbers but wasn’t sure how ESCI had done its calculations and knew he would have a chance to talk to the consultants and get an explanation.

Explaining the error, though, does not mean the issue of Fire Department sick leave is going away any time soon.

“Sick leave is an alternative to vacation, a benefit given to employees to use,” Greene told council members.He also said use of sick leave as vacation time can become part of the culture of a Fire Department. Changing that idea “may require a cultural change,” said Greene.

The other problem with sick leave is that it spikes on Saturdays, especially during the summer, the busiest day of the week for the Fire Department. If too many firefighters call in sick, there is a possibility that some equipment would need to be shut down until staffing increases.

“What I’d like firefighters to do is take responsibility for the decisions they’re making about staffing,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges, who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee “I expect them to take responsibility.”

Part of the problem may be the way Fire Department personnel now select their vacation time.

“One thing that’s unique about our department is we pick our vacations a year in advance,” said Fruetel. Vacation time is selected in the fall for the following year based on seniority. Only 19 are allowed to vacation on any given day — which means it can take years for a firefighter to get a summer vacation.

“And then some cousin decides to get married,” said Fruetel, which makes sick leave the only option for attending the wedding. The chief allowed that maybe a new method for allotting vacation days might help solve some of the problem.

“If they are sick, I would like them to stay home, and if they’re not sick, I would like them to come to work,” said Fruetel who is seeking to add 30 firefighters to the staff to compensate for retirements in the next few years.

Daily staffing citywide currently totals 92, a combination of firefighters and battalion and deputy chiefs. ESCI is recommending a staffing level of 94 a day and would eliminate staffing for salvage, mobile command and board-up operations. Board-up work already has been eliminated from daily staffing numbers.

The 92 figure puts Minneapolis below the regional and national average for Fire Department personnel per 1,000 residents. The regional average is 1.5 per 1,000 residents, with the national average 1.2. Minneapolis comes in at 1.07.

Fruetel is more concerned about hiring new staff than the staff statistic.

“We’ve got nobody under the age of 30 in our Fire Department, and we’ve got many over the age of 50,” said Fruetel, who foresees many possible retirements in the next five years without ready replacements. “There will be a leadership vacuum in the very near future,” he said.

Minneapolis did not meet the 5-minute response time for medical calls or the 5:20 response time for fire calls suggested for city departments. It did win praise, however, from Greene for the way the 19 city fire stations are spread across the city. The arrangement places 97 percent of residents within a 4-minute drive from the stations.

Response time involves two factors: turnout time and travel time. Firefighters are allotted 1 minute for medical calls and 1:20 for fire calls to gather their equipment and get into the vehicle.   The department, though, has averaged 1:41 for turnout. The department allots 4 minutes for travel time but has averaged 4:43.

“There is room for improvement,” said Greene, “but for the response they’ve been giving, they are performing really well.”

“We do an effective job of responding 97 percent of the time,” said Fruetel, who added, “This city is a 24-hour machine and it doesn’t stop.”

Fruetel was asked by Council members to report back in five weeks with his plan for correcting problem areas cited in the report. By that time, the Council will have received Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 2013 budget proposal and will be ready to begin budget hearings.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 07/31/2012 - 01:50 pm.

    Real cost of sometimes saving lives…

    Has anyone calculated the cost of legitimately saving one life to which the MFD has responded? That is, a timely, critical, superior skills-based extraction that would have otherwise most certainly resulted in loss of life? Now divide by vacations, sick time, luxury pensions. Now times more fire-fighters, training and support, and supervisors than you thought possible. At what point do you say ‘i just can’t afford this anymore?’

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/31/2012 - 05:15 pm.

      Cost of a life

      Even if we could legitimately and accurately calculate when such skills would have saved a life in a situation that “would have otherwise most certainly resulted in loss of life,” what is an acceptable cost?

      I’m not saying that it’s not possible to waste money in the life-saving business, but I think the direction you’re going with this is a problem. Especially since firemen are not just out there to save lives, but to save property. How big a building or how many buildings equates to a human life?

  2. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 07/31/2012 - 05:16 pm.

    I Tell You When

    When it’s not me, or a family member of mine, or one of my friends. We just can’t afford you and yours any more.

  3. Submitted by Kenneth Adams on 07/31/2012 - 11:08 pm.

    Error in report

    A centerpiece of the report is a statistic that exaggerates the annual sick leave by a factor of 3. No, this doesn’t mean that “the issue of Fire Department sick leave is going away any time soon”. But it does mean, as the union boss said; due to its factual inaccuracy the report has no credibility. Strangely the city council plows forward as if nothing untoward has happened. They should have been able to get these basic statistics from their personnel department, and they should have reviewed the report for accuracy before releasing it. If they can’t manage the development and publication of a credible consultant report, how in the world do they expect to properly oversee and improve the fire department? (much less get control of the police department and the shenanigans there)?

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/01/2012 - 09:18 am.

    Yeah, it’s about the error

    This “error” made it into the final report, there’s no excuse for that. It really does call into question the other data in the report, this wasn’t a draft. I would verify all the other data in the report before making any recommendations based on it’s findings. Is it too late to claw back some of that stadium money and put it into saving lives?

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/01/2012 - 09:43 am.

    By the way…

    The adjusted numbers put MPLS firefighter 1.4 hours above average with 97.4 annual hours of sick time compared to 60-96 hours average for a city of MPLS size. 1.4 hours. Are we going to make a mountain out that mole hill?

    And the by they by the way, whatever we do journalists don’t ask anyone WHY they’re having so much trouble recruiting new firefighters. I mean what could that POSSIBLY have to do with staffing shortages? Why drift off into meaningful questions when we have a faulty report to talk about? Stay focused!

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/01/2012 - 09:57 am.

    Suggestion

    On a completely different note, Minnpost articles should always have a graphic of some kind associated with the link. That way when they are shared or posted on sites like Facebook they will pop out instead of simply displaying the html link. This is the second Minnpost story this morning that I’ve shared on FB, but few will look at it because it didn’t pop with a graphic.

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