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(Gazette file photos)

Staffing local volunteer fire departments used to be easy.

When many St. Croix Valley residents were farmers, Lake Elmo Fire Department (LEFD) Chief Greg Malmquist said departments could depend on them to quickly respond to calls.

“The farmers would raise the plow and go to the fire hall,” Malmquist said. “Now it’s a part-time job.”

As the cities of Lake Elmo, Stillwater and Bayport grow, Malmquist said finding and retaining paid on-call firefighters has become harder, an issue fire departments face nationally.

Without volunteers, cities hire part-time or full-time firefighters, a costly but often necessary move, Malmquist said.

Moving forward, local city councils may need to reexamine how to staff city fire departments.

Minnesota ranks second in the U.S. for the state’s reliance on paid on-call firefighters, said Bayport Fire Chief Allen Eisinger. Minnesota is also among the states that spends the least on fire response, he said.

However, Eisinger said that could change as local departments struggle to fill volunteer vacancies.

In September 2017, the LEFD hired part-time firefighters to cover day time shifts when there is a shortage of paid on-call firefighters, Malmquist said. Although 18 on-call firefighters support the LEFD, the city allots the department 32 paid on-call positions.

“We are well down in our numbers,” Malmquist said. “We are constantly advertising.”

The Stillwater Fire Department (SFD), which covers 61 square miles in Stillwater, May Township and Grant, employs 12 full-time and 29 paid on-call firefighters with six paid on-call vacancies, said SFD Chief Stuart Glaser.

On the other hand, Bayport Fire Department (BFD) fully relies on paid on-call. With 26 paid on-call firefighters and a waiting list, Eisinger said the BFD is one of few volunteer departments that does not struggle to fill positions. Bayport City Council also approved two additional paid on-call firefighters in February.

BFD covers 36 square miles between Bayport, Oak Park Heights, Baytown Township and West Lakeland Township. The department covers both state prisons, Andersen Windows, the Allen S. King Xcel Energy Plant, several schools and Boutwells Landing senior living in Oak Park Heights.

Eisinger attributes his full staff to city partnerships, a solid pool of candidates and local businesses that allow employees to leave during shifts to respond to fire calls. Additionally, only two members leave the county to work, which makes day time response without any full or part-time staff easier, he said.

“We are the anomaly in the state of Minnesota,” Eisinger said.

Road Blocks

Cities face one major barrier to hiring fire department staff: cost.

“Plain and simple, it’s dollars,” Malmquist said.

Although the paid on-call format saves money, it costs to recruit and train. SFD spends $7,000 to train new paid on-call firefighters and an additional $3,000 if they need gear, Glaser said. Eisinger said BFD spends $10,000 per new recruit. Glaser added SFD paid on-call firefighters are paid hourly per response, with a starting rate of $12.25 per hour.

Time commitment is also a deterrent, said Stillwater City Administrator Tom McCarty. The “extensive” training — about 200 hours for certification — includes fire response, first responder, water rescue and hazardous materials. In addition, BFD, LEFD and SFD have at least two mandatory trainings per month.

“For volunteers to dedicate that number of hours...It’s tough,” Eisinger said. “That’s a lot of family events that get disrupted.”

The frequency in which people move geographically – for work or permanently – as well as changing demographics also decreases the number of potential volunteers, McCarty said.

Todd Kockelman, a SFD paid on-call firefighter and owner of Kockelman Financial in Stillwater, said his office’s proximity to the SFD makes it easy to respond to calls. Kockelman, who said he responds to calls about 15 times per month, has had the highest paid on-call response rate for the last two years.

Although becoming a paid on-call firefighter took away family time, Kockelman said the job gives him more opportunities for community involvement.

“It gives me more balance to my life,” Kockelman said. “There’s a sense of pride in what we do.”

The future of fire response

As east metro communities grow, the need to staff fire departments becomes more urgent.

Additionally, fire departments respond to more calls each year as the situations they respond to diversify, with medical calls making up the bulk of the call log.

For example, BFD’s annual calls nearly doubled in the last decade with 1,229 calls in 2018 compared to 689 calls in 2008, Eisinger said. Typically, fire departments hire a full-time firefighter after reaching 700 annual calls, he added.

“We’re still the busiest all-volunteer fire department in the state,” Eisinger said. “I feel that we’re on the breaking edge.”

Although many communities rely on paid on-call, they may not be able to for much longer.

Malmquist said LEFD is in a transitional period. The department will eventually need to hire full-time or more part-time firefighters, he said.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said.

In addition to population growth, McCarty said population density increases the number of calls. A rise in multi-family and retirement homes as well as increased traffic on Highway 36 from drivers using the St. Croix Crossing affect the number of calls, he said.

“More development generates more calls,” McCarty said.

Although McCarty said the Stillwater City Council hasn’t made a recent directive to alter fire department staffing, they are researching how the SFD can better cover the area.

“It’s a constant state of: how do we make this work?” McCarty said. “There’s no magic answer.”

A duty crew, a part-time team that fills in shifts, or a collaboration between nearby cities are other options, McCarty added.

“Even if you do that, it doesn’t change the demand cycle,” he said. “You still need the resources.”

Contact Kim Schneider at kim.schneider@ecm-inc.com

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