A.L. residents favor keeping full Fire Dept.

Published 9:55 am Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Albert Lea residents spoke out in favor of restoring a full-time, five-firefighter crew Monday during a public hearing in front of the Albert Lea City Council.

Citing the safety risk that would come with having a smaller crew, a majority of the people said they would rather pay a few dollars more each year to cover a full-time crew than see there be less people available to fight a fire quickly.

“When I call 911, I want response, whether it be from the Fire Department or the Police Department,” said Lynn Berven, father of firefighter Bart Berven.

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He said if the department was reduced to having four firefighters on at any time, then there is the risk that one person would be out sick or on vacation when a fire is called in. A general rule for firefighters is to have at least four people at a fire — two inside and two outside.

Berven said he also does not think a smaller crew would be able to maintain many of their other responsibilities, including maintain hydrants and inspection services.

“We would have to hire outside people which will be added costs,” Berven said.

The meeting, attended by about 50 people, was set up as the council is considering whether to make changes to the staffing of the department. The city is dealing with tight budget times with reductions in state funding and other revenue.

Earlier this year, the city hired Florida-based consultant firm Almont Associates for $30,000 to examine the department, looking at who should lead the department and the staffing and productivity of the firefighters. The report was released in June.

Last week, City Manager Chad Adams presented two options for staffing to the council and the financial impact both would have on the city.

The first option called for restoring the department to its full-time staffing levels, which would include five firefighters per shift, plus a deputy fire chief and a shared public safety director. One captain position would be eliminated.

Adams estimated this option would cost an estimated $140,000 increase in the tax levy, or an estimated $12 increase in property taxes annually for a $100,000 home. This would double for a $200,000 home and double again for a $400,000 home.

The option allows the department to meet mandatory minimum guidelines of having at least four firefighters at the scene of a fire, even in the case that one person was on vacation. For safety reasons, there should be two firefighters outside as two firefighters are battling a blaze inside, according to national guidelines.

The second option called for reducing the department to have four firefighters on per shift. There would be no overtime to schedule the minimum four-person staffing required to enter a structure fire.

The risk is having a person out on sick time or vacation and having a fire be called in. While the deputy fire chief would be able to be utilized during the day to make up for any vacancies, there would be higher risk at night.

Adams estimated this option to cost an estimated $100,000 increase to the tax levy, or an estimated $8 increase per year for a $100,000 homeowner. He said the savings would increase after the first year, though there would be ongoing costs with hiring and training on-call firefighters.

Former 3rd Ward Councilor George Marin said he recognizes it is a difficult decision for the councilors to make, but he thinks it is a “no-brainer” decision.

As a father, a property owner and a pastor in the community, he said when he picks up the phone to call 911, he wants to make sure there’s a full trained staff on the other end.

Resident Thomas Newell spoke of how the ability to fight fires came into play when he was applying for financing for his business. It was the top factor when under consideration.

Former Fire Chief Paul Stieler also voiced his support for a five-firefighter crew and said he thinks there is a significant decrease in the ability to fight a fire if there were only three people fighting a fire, versus four — especially at night.

Stieler said at night fires tend to be bigger because people aren’t awake. Sometimes police officers are the ones to find the fires as they are out on patrol.

“I think for the little bit of extra cost and all the things the fire department does, as far as inspections, rental housing, maintenance of the building, all these extra things more than cover a little bit of extra cost to maintain a full department,” he said.

Not everyone, however, was in favor of five-firefighter option.

Resident Jerry Rasmusson said while he has no problems with the fire department, he has an issue with increasing taxes. He said it is frustrating to see his taxes going up, even as the value of his home decreases. He also talked about Albert Lea’s taxes compared to neighboring communities.

“I know you’re in the hot seat  — I’ve been there myself — but I want you to keep in mind the tax rates are high in Albert Lea,” Rasmusson said.

Second Ward Councilor Larry Baker motioned to table a decision until the council’s Sept. 10 meeting, saying he needed more time to talk with some constituents who left him messages.

First Ward Councilor John Schulte V said he would not be able to be in attendance at the Sept. 10 meeting but wanted to state his opinion. He said he supported the five-firefighter crew.

“These are the types of decisions you’ll see the council have to make more and more,” said Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen.

He and the other councilors encouraged community members to continue to voice their opinions before the upcoming meeting.

From what he’s heard from a majority of people so far, Rasmussen said he thinks people are willing to sustain higher costs to maintain a five-firefighter crew.

“It’s not anything we take lightly,” he said.


Value of property saved by the A.L. Fire Department

2011: $750,000 in structures and contents

2012: $12.5 million in structures and contents*


* Number includes more commercial and industrial fires, along with more smoke damage.