After an outside consulting firm helped the Brooklyn Park Fire Department develop a long-term strategic plan, the fire chief has proposed eliminating the paid-on-call division of the fire department and shifting to a career-centered, full-time fire fighting force.

If implemented, the plan would also staff the city’s east fire station, which currently is unmanned.

Fire Chief John Cunningham presented the plan at the Brooklyn Park City Council’s May 28 meeting.

The proposal

In September 2018, the city hired Fitch and Associates to develop a plan for the department’s future. The recommendations come as the result of the department’s work with Fitch and Associates.

Cunningham offered three proposals to move the department forward.

The Cunningham-endorsed model was to, in a budget neutral move, eliminate the department’s 21 paid-on-call firefighter positions and replace them with nine full-time firefighters. All four of the city’s fire stations would be manned by 24-hour duty crews under this model. The $741,302 allocated to the paid-on-call firefighters would be reallocated to the full-time staff, and a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could potentially add another $402,950 to the budget, for a total of $1.1 million.

The firefighter’s relief association would also need to be dissolved for the plan to be viable, but firefighters would not lose funds that have already been contributed, Cunningham said.

“Professionally, I feel that we’re in a position that we need to make some critical decisions on how we can continue meeting the needs or our community ... I’m here to make sure that we can provide the service to our community and lead this organization forward, so I know that’s making some bold recommendations and possibly some steps going forward,” Cunningham said.

As part of the proposal, the department may create a part-time pilot program in an effort to bring a new, more diverse field of candidates into the department. He said the program could be comparable to the police department’s cadet program.

A second option was to immediately adopt a full-time model without the phasing of a pilot part-time program.

A third option was to reinvest in the paid-on-call program. This plan would require an estimated $580,000 in investment to add 30-60 paid-on-call firefighters.

Councilmember Terry Parks, a former firefighter, said that he feels the city will need additional firefighters beyond what the plan has called for.

“To me, the numbers we’re asking for right now are low,” Parks said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to build it up.”

Councilmember Lisa Jacobson said that she trusts and supports the chief’s recommendation, as he is an expert in fire service she is not. She also questioned what impact the change could have on department morale, and spoke in favor of staffing the east district station.

Mayor Jeff Lunde said that it is important to advance efforts to diversify the force before potentially hiring a group of new firefighters, as those jobs do not tend to have a high rate of turnover. Councilmember Wynfred Russell also spoke in favor of diversifying the department.

The force will likely need additional people and funding as soon as this plan is implemented, Councilmember Mark Mata said. By requiring firefighters to act as EMTs as well, the city has tightened the applicant pool, and the department is overburdened by medical calls, he said.

Mata also questioned the ability of a force that size to adequately respond to all of the calls and questioned the ability of the force to be diversified with this plan.

“I guess I’m a little disappointed … The way it goes, it really doesn’t matter to me. I’m just trying to find budgets, I’m trying to find [ways to make it] cheaper to live here and still produce the same results,” Mata said.

Councilmember Susan Pha said that she supported the plan, but that she was concerned that the city may need a larger full-time department to adequately serve the city.

Recent department history

Consider a brief, wide-angle history lesson — the relationship between the city council and fire department has not been altogether smooth in past years.

In the 2000s, the fire department was strictly a paid-on-call affair. Under Fire Chief Ken Prillaman, who started as chief in 2008, the department began staffing full-time duty crews along with its paid-on-call staff.

Just prior to 2016, there were firefighters staffed at three of the city’s four fire stations: the east, west and central stations. At the time, the north station was unmanned. In 2016, Prillaman transferred a duty crew out of the east station and into the north station, prompting concerns from some council members, particularly those representing the city’s east district. Since then, there have been repeated calls from some council members to staff the east station.

In July 2017, the city council approved a separation agreement with Prillaman amid controversy. He stated his resignation was due to harassment from Councilmember Mark Mata, a long-time paid-on-call firefighter. As a result, the mayor and a council member called for Mata’s resignation. Mata disagreed with this characterization of his actions and did not resign. Council relationships were tense and the League of Minnesota Cities was involved in the following mediation.

Following all this, the council approved John Cunningham as Prillaman’s successor May 14, 2018. Prillaman now serves as interim fire chief of the Excelsior Fire District.

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Community Editor

Kevin Miller is Community Editor for the Brooklyn Park Sun Post.

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