The Long Lake Fire Department currently serves the cities of Long Lake, Orono and Medina in case of fires, natural disasters, or life-threatening situations. During Long Lake’s city council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Mayor Charlie Miner and Fire Chief James Van Eyll provided council members information regarding the possibility of future fire department partnerships with other surrounding cities.
The discussion began with Miner explaining that he attends meetings for the association of the North West Hennepin League of Municipalities.
“It’s primarily made up of mayors. We meet once a month and discuss issues that impact our communities...Lately, we’ve been talking about fire department issues,” he said. “Across the state, I think across the country actually, fire departments are having issues with recruitment - volunteerism isn’t what it used to be, there are challenges with getting paid on-call firefighters especially with how busy people are these days.”
Miner continued to say Long Lake has experienced some of these issues; and during the North West Hennepin League of Municipalities December meeting, speakers were invited to discuss those issues. Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety attended the meeting as well as officials from the State Fire Marshal office, including Bruce West, the recently appointed assistant commissioner.
There are approximately 782 fire departments across Minnesota and the speakers believe that is not a sustainable number and that more cities should consider sharing resources and assets, according to Miner’s notes from the meeting.
Many fire departments rely on paid, on-call firefighters as well as those willing to volunteer. Miner explained there are very few cases in Minnesota where a fire department is considered a fire district. Departments within a fire district have taxing authority; however, that is not currently allowed under state statute except in certain circumstances.
“That would open up some more doors, as far as allowing some cities coming together to create fire departments that might be able to serve more cities than one,” Miner said, while also adding that it may not be the right decision for Long Lake, but he would like to lobby for creating fire districts in Minnesota.
Van Eyll said there are cities in Minnesota who have joint power agreements for fire departments and that studies have been performed to see if shared responsibilities work. He explained there are models of cities that don’t have any taxing authority, those who have the option to move towards gaining taxing authority, and those who already do.
“There’s been a lot of talk about it but nothing has been put down in concrete,” he said.
Council member Tom Skjaret asked Van Eyll what a good set up for Long Lake and the surrounding communities would be. While that question currently doesn’t have an answer, Van Eyll responded saying there are regional assets that are already being shared between local fire departments, but if the departments were to become a district, the cost of replacing assets could be shared among a broader group of residents. Skjaret and Van Eyll then brought the conversation back to the issue of the number of volunteer firefighters.
“That’s the big change in our community where we used to have a lot of either manufacturing or types of businesses that had people in the community 8 to 5. They were volunteers and they were able to leave. Well, our businesses have changed. We don’t have those people here anymore... We don’t have the number of volunteers and to compliment [Van Eyll], you’ve kept your staff on board, but you always have vacancies,” Skjaret said.
Van Eyll said the department is always hiring and looking for volunteers to fill out times where they don’t have as much coverage.
The department is looking at having a temporary duty crew during their busy months which are June, July and August. Firefighters would have specific scheduled times they would be on duty. According to Van Eyll, having duty crews would decrease their response times and efficiency.
There are no current plans to make any changes to the fire department or any partnerships. Any possible changes are still being discussed. The city of Long Lake is also looking to continue their partnership with Orono.