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

The most controversial part of the $147,500 study involved faulty calculations of firefighters’ use of sick leave.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.