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St. Paul, Minneapolis fire departments find room to improve

A study critical of the Minneapolis Fire Department — obtained by the Star Tribune earlier this month — prompts interest from an East Metro point of view about how the St. Paul Fire Department is doing?

The Minneapolis report, the second phase of a three-part independent study, found low morale, aging equipment and nearly half of he city’s stations in poor condition. The study is prompting debate and discussion as official attribute much of the trouble to budget problems, as the city deals with big cuts in local aid from the state.

In St. Paul, the mayor’s office and the fire department both say they can’t make direct comparisons of the two cities’ operations because of that apples/oranges — or Saints/Millers — thing. And the most recent outside look at St. Paul’s fire department dates to 2007.

Morale in the departments

And these days, particularly in government work during a time of tight budgets, it might not be a surprise that morale is down at the Minneapolis Fire Department or anywhere else.

But one of the telling stats of the Minneapolis assessment of morale shows an “unusually high” sick leave rate in the Minneapolis department: an average of 292.2 hours per firefighter for sick time and family and emergency leave. And the majority of it occurred on weekends.

The report said that similar fire departments average 60 to 96 hours of sick leave per employee per year.

Official statistics in St. Paul show an average of 72 sick hours used per year by firefighters — the equivalent of three 24-hour shifts  a year in St. Paul vs. more than 12 shifts a year in Minneapolis.

A talk with some firefighters in St. Paul about the high Minneapolis sick leave rate elicited raised eyebrows, but they, too, were reluctant to criticize their Mill City colleagues.

And a caveat from Clarise Tushie-Lessard of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office: Personnel are classified differently by the two cities. She adds: “Minneapolis is very different from St. Paul, and we aren’t in a position to compare our two fire departments.”

(In the 2007 St. Paul study, the city also faced morale concerns — in that case because of deteriorating relations between the chief and the unionized firefighters. That manifested itself in lots of sick leave taken during summer months, the study said. The labor-management crisis moved quickly toward resolution when the chief left for another job.)

After the current Minneapolis study,  the head of the Firefighters Union said the sick leave numbers are misleading for several reasons, including the reality that some veterans burn off accumulated sick leave before retiring.

Staffing

The newspaper also noted that the  Minneapolis study shows staffing is down, and that while the  department “has been able to meet the immediate needs for all but the highest risk fires over the past three years,” there are concerns about a steep drop in staff numbers: from 483 full-time-equivalent employees in fiscal year 2001 to 408 in fiscal year 2011, and currently at 390 employees, including 383 sworn personnel.

By comparison, St. Paul officials said, they’ve added numbers in that time frame, with the help of federal grants. In 2001, St. Paul had 416 staff to  fight fires and respond to emergency calls; this year, there are 434.

St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler says he’s “fairly satisfied” with the department’s staffing levels, “in light of the economy.” There are still some places, though, where  he’d like to have more bodies available, such as Highland Park.

“We’re not there [at optimum staff levels] yet, but we’re holding our ground pretty well,” he said.

St. Paul’s reorganization study

St. Paul officials say that the much-touted 2007 study shows that an outside look at a bureaucracy can be the first step toward meaningful change.

St. Paul Chief Tim Butler
St. Paul Chief Tim Butler

(In addition to looking at reorganization options, the report dealt with strife and low morale in the department — manifested by high sick-leave rates during the warm months — surrounding the leadership of then-Chief Doug Holton. That was remedied almost immediately when Holton was hired to be chief in Milwaukee. After a national search, Butler, a department insider, was hired. The changes, developed by committees within and outside the department, immediately fell to him.)

Among the study’s 138 recommendations was a call for reducing the number of St. Paul fire stations from 16 to 13. Closing any station is a politically risky move, because residents near the closed stations always feel shorted.

St. Paul officials took it slow, using a five-year plan to initiate changes they thought were reasonable and affordable. Butler estimated they’ve implemented about 80 percent of the changes.

The overall strategic plan is to handle both fire suppression and the emergency medical mission, he said. “And we needed to enhance the EMS [emergency medical services] but not to the detriment of the fire duties,” he said.

The number of stations has been cut, but less dramatically than first suggested. They got down to 15, by closing two stations and combining them into one new headquarters station near West Seventh and Randolph.

“One recommendation we couldn’t implement was closing Station 7 on the East Side,” Butler said. “It was in poor condition, and the original idea was to disperse the staff to other nearby stations. But it wasn’t a good idea, because that’s a very high demand and high-risk area for both fire and medical services.”

And a recommendation to move a station from the Grand Avenue area to the Como neighborhood hasn’t happened for financial reasons.

But they have moved ahead with a recommendation to add more dedicated medical units to the stations, to make sure firefighting rigs aren’t out of service or on a medical call should a fire break out.

The city now has three Super Medic units around town, at Station 23 near the fairgrounds, Station 8 downtown and Station 9 on the East Side.

In those stations, there are two firefighters are on medic duty, along with the traditional four assigned to engines.

“If there’s a major fire, all six go; if there’s a minor medical situation, just two go; major medical, all six go with both rigs,” Butler said.

“This gives the fire captain incredible flexibility to deal with the situation he has, and the situation in the rest of the city to do what’s best for the patient and what’s best for other potential patients.”

Other changes after the study include administrative restructuring, more training and outreach for older citizens and better diversity in the work force, the chief said.

“Even through the financial crisis, we’ve made progress on our vehicle replacement plan, and we now have the most modern fleet we’ve had in decades,” he said.

“I’m happy with the progress; we’ve had cuts in the budget but no layoffs and no payroll cuts. We’ve gone from running some three-person companies to four-person companies.”

With $1 million cut from his budget last year, Butler says all the needed changes can’t be made right away.

He’d really like to see more staffing in Highland Park, where Engine 19’s four-person company covers a huge chunk of the city.

“When they’re out of service, for any reason, there’s no other protection available in that big area,” Butler said. “We could benefit greatly from more resources there. It’s on the wish list, in the plans, but there’s no funding for that yet.”

Back in 2007, Mayor Chris Coleman promised that the study, which cost the city $215,000, would not go to waste. 

“This audit is a road map for progress in the Fire Department,” he said at the time.

On Wednesday, he said: “We have made great strides in the fire department since the 2007 report was completed, not only following some of the study’s most important suggestions, but even going further in increasing staffing levels and working hard to increase diversity in the department.”

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