A.L. City Council approves full firefighter crews

Published 7:38 pm Monday, September 10, 2012

The Albert Lea City Council on Monday unanimously approved restoring the city Fire Department to full-time staffing levels.

The decision came after months of study completed on the department, including a $30,000 review by Florida-based consultant firm Almont Associates, and high feedback from the community. The study came as the city is dealing with tight budget times with the loss of state funding and other revenue.

“I think this is a very important thing that we need in our community,” said 5th Ward Councilor Larry Anderson. “This is a resource that’s very important to not only bring business in town but to help keep the business we have in town.”

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The councilors said though the decision will mean increased property taxes, people in the community overwhelmingly voiced support for a five-firefighter crew.

“This is a top priority for them,” said 3rd Ward Councilor Ellen Kehr. “It’s going to take effort to sustain it, and I believe the residents will stand behind that.”

City Manager Chad Adams previously stated this choice will cost an estimated $140,000 increase in the city tax levy in 2013, 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.

He said reducing staffing levels by one person on each crew would have cost an estimated $8 increase in annual city property taxes for a $100,000 home, to allow for accounting changes and hiring additional paid on-call firefighters.

City residents spoke out in favor of restoring the full-time staffing levels during the council’s last meeting in August. A majority of the people said they would rather spend a few more dollars each year to cover a full-time crew than to see there be less people available to fight a fire quickly. A few also spoke at the Monday meeting.

“I look at having a fully staffed fire department as an insurance policy that I hope I will never have to collect on,” said resident Lynn Berven, who spoke during the August public hearing and at the Monday meeting.

Charles Grinolds, whose father was fire chief into the 1980s, said he was worried about not only putting potential victims in danger but also the firefighters themselves.

“When it really comes down to it, there’s no price for life,” Grinolds said. “I hope you keep the Fire Department at full staff.”

The option for the full-time crew 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 sick or on vacation. For safety reasons, there should be two firefighters outside as two firefighters are battling a blaze inside, according to guidelines.

In the last few months, the department has shared a public safety director with the Police Department, and there have been four captains and 11 firefighters. Two of the firefighter positions have been filled with temporary part-time employees as the city has reviewed the department. The department has also been assisted by the Albert Lea Township Fire Department with a paid, on-call staff of 16 budgeted volunteers.

The Monday decision means the city will begin permanently hiring for the two firefighter positions that had been temporary, said Public Safety Director Dwaine Winkels. It will also begin hiring for a deputy fire chief and look for candidates both within and outside of the department.

“Now that we know the manpower, we can start to get our management plan in place,” Winkels said.