Burnsville, Eagan say both would benefit

The Burnsville and Eagan fire departments are seeking ways to jointly improve fire and emergency medical service and efficiency.

It could take the form of a shared million-dollar ladder truck, or a battalion chief to oversee on-scene responses in either city, Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott said. Maybe overtime expenses could be cut by leveraging the larger workforce between two departments.

Scott avoids the word “consolidation,” but chiefs in both neighboring cities say closer cooperation could strengthen the departments at a time when call loads are rising and hiring has grown more difficult.

Scott and Burnsville Fire Chief B.J. Jungmann have applied for a $40,000 grant from the state fire marshal’s office to study the benefits of consolidation, according to the grant application.

“I don’t know that Eagan is on board with that idea yet,” Scott said. “We’re definitely into collaboration and seeing what else we can do together.”

Jungmann has led Burnsville’s efforts to convince state legislators to allow creation of “fire protection districts,” with taxing authority, through consolidation of two or more departments.

Fire protection district legislation, which has stalled in the House in recent years, is supported by the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and is a top legislative priority for Burnsville again in 2020.

There are more than 775 fire departments in Minnesota, which is unsustainable, Jungmann said.

Burnsville and Eagan are “career” departments with full-time responders. Eagan began the switch from a paid on-call “volunteer” department with the addition of 12 career responders in 2018. Nineteen new recruits are now in training, Scott said. And by April 1, fire will take over for police in responding to medical emergencies (along with HealthEast’s ambulance service), he said.

High firefighter turnover made the old volunteer model unsustainable, Scott said.

Eagan has emergency medical technicians and paramedics, a higher certification, Scott said. Burnsville operates its own ambulance service, with a full staff of firefighter-paramedics.

The departments participated in a 2015 shared-services study that included Savage and South Metro Fire (South St. Paul and West St. Paul).

Since then, Burnsville, Eagan and South Metro have formed a training academy, Scott said. Burnsville and Eagan have shared protocols and made some compatible equipment purchases, he said. Eagan has done training under the Burnsville department’s medical director.

Cooperation between the departments has strengthened since Eagan adopted the career firefighter model, Jungmann said.

“They do a lot of the same stuff we do as far as training,” he said. “We’ve worked closely with them. They’ve asked a lot of questions, because we’ve been through this since 1981.”

Both departments are small compared with other career departments, so Burnsville and Eagan have extra incentive to work together, Scott said.

Both are under increasing pressure. Burnsville’s emergency medical calls have risen by 3 to 7 percent annually in recent years, Jungmann said.

Total calls for the 44-member department numbered 7,279 in 2019, compared with the mid-4,000s in 2009, he said.

“In any big community, EMS calls are growing tremendously,” said Scott, who will have 39 firefighters when the 19 trainees arrive for work.

Recruiting is a challenge, both chiefs said. Unemployment is low, and firefighting is a largely a “blue collar” profession in an economy gone high-tech, Jungmann said. Private ambulance services also face hiring challenges, he said.

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