Firefighters: Use money as meant

Published 9:40 am Friday, March 5, 2010

Firefighters from across the state are coming together to question Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal to use more than $9 million in firefighter training money to help balance the state budget.

The training money, which is automatically dedicated from fire insurance premiums for both home and business owners, is put into an account and then distributed by the Legislature to firefighters.

Nyle Zikmund, fire chief with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department, said there was $4.5 million in the account at the end of the last fiscal year and since then another $8 million has been collected.

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He said Pawlenty claims that any money sitting in the account is a surplus and can be used to help solve part of the budget problem.

“We’re arguing that the money should be used as it’s intended to be used,” Zikmund said.

Minnesota Professional Firefighters President Tom Thornberg, who is also a firefighter with the city of Minneapolis, said firefighters from across the state apply for grants out of the fund to reimburse themselves for training.

Thornberg said starting July 1, 2011, a new licensing law will go into effect that requires all firefighters to be trained to a certain level before they can be hired. This will put an even greater emphasis on training than ever before.

“We have to be ready to respond to anything,” said Albert Lea Fire Department Lt. Al Schallock, who is also president of the Local 1041 firefighters union. “If people don’t know who to call, they call the fire department.”

While they are primarily known for responding to fires, firefighters also respond to crashes involving hazardous materials, ice rescues, water rescues and high angle rescues to name a few — all of which provide special training.

If the cuts to the training funds comes on top of additional local government aid reductions, Schallock questioned what Albert Lea would do.

He described it as a “double whammy.”

Already, the Albert Lea Fire Department has not replaced a firefighter who retired last June, he said.

“If we lay off anymore, then we just took a huge step backward,” he said.

On top of cuts, local firefighters are also taking on additional duties — including custodial duties at City Hall and street department duties of flushing hydrants around town, he added. This was done to eliminate any additional cuts in the department.

“We’ve done our part,” Zikmund said.

Thornberg said Minnesota ranks 47th out of the 50 states on what is spent on fire service throughout the state, while it is 21st in population.

“It’s not the state’s responsibility to fund all the funding for the firefighters,” Zikmund said. “But it’s coming from the homeowners and business owners.”

He said firefighters risk their lives every day in their jobs and should be able to feel confident in responding to emergency situations.

“We’re the people risking our lives,” he said. “This is just wrong.”

The firefighters are just one area that would be affected by Pawlenty’s budget proposals.