Firefighters make plea to council

Published 8:15 am Sunday, August 26, 2012

Leaders of the Albert Lea Fire Department voiced strong opinion Thursday to the Albert Lea City Council about maintaining a full-time five-firefighter crew.

Chad Adams

During the council’s regular preagenda workshop, the firefighters spoke out about a fear for loss of safety, structure loss and potential casualties that could come with reducing staffing to four-firefighter crews.

“A reduction in staffing dramatically changes what we’re capable of doing,” said Fire Capt. Scott Hanna. “I’ve taken great pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish, and we’d like to continue doing that.”

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The discussion came as the council is considering whether to make changes to the department. The city is dealing with tight budget times with the loss of 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.

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

Dwaine Winkels

Up for discussion is one option to restore the department to its full-time staffing levels, which would include five firefighters per shift plus a deputy fire chief available during normal business hours. This option would allow 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 is on vacation.

For safety reasons, there should be two firefighters outside as two firefighters are battling a blaze inside, according to national guidelines.

Adams estimated this option to be an estimated $140,000 annual increase in the budget, or $12 increase in property taxes annually for a $100,000 home.

Under the second option, the department would shift to having 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.

Lt. Al Schallock talked of the importance of having four people at the scene of a fire and gave an example of what might happen if a fire were called in at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and there were only three people on duty.

While the three firefighters could leave the station right away to go to the scene, the fourth firefighter would have to be called in.

Once he was called, he would have to get dressed at his home, drive to the fire station, get dressed in his gear and then leave the station to drive to the scene.

“We’re looking at 10 to 12 minutes,” Schallock said. “We’ve had various house fires, by that time you would have had dead people.”

This option is estimated to be an increase of about $100,000 to the department to cover hiring additional paid on-call firefighters. This equals an annual $8 property tax increase for a $100,000 home.

“This is a service level you have to decide for the citizens of Albert Lea,” said Public Safety Director Dwaine Winkels.

The firefighters said the Almont firm was uncomfortable with having only five firefighters at a fire, let alone four. It recommended as many as 14.

They also talked about studies that show how the value of structure loss will increase as the number of personnel is decreased. Schallock pointed to the Hanson Tire Service fire three years ago and what might have happened if firefighters were not able to immediately fight that fire from the inside.

They also talked about the difficulty in hiring firefighters because of a reduction in the available pool of applicants.

Schallock said when he first tested in Albert Lea to become a firefighter in 1981 there were 200 applications for one position. Now, he said the city is lucky to receive 20.

He said the council must also remember the cost of turnover, training and equipment.

The council will hear input from the public about the issue during its Monday meeting.

At that time, Adams will also give a presentation about the organizational structure and staffing options to those in attendance.

Adams said he is seeking direction from the council at the Monday meeting or at the Sept. 10 meeting.