Lake Elmo will consider hiring daytime firefighters

Faced with a shortage of volunteer firefighters, the Lake Elmo City Council will discuss future steps to staff its fire department July 18.

Fire Chief Greg Malmquist made a presentation to the city’s public safety committee July 11 regarding options for hiring and retaining daytime firefighters.

About 90 percent of calls for service in Lake Elmo are during the day, Malmquist said, but the daytime is when it’s most difficult to find volunteers to respond to calls.

The council had previously directed the public safety committee to look into options for fire department staffing. During its June 13 workshop, the council received a copy of a letter from Malmquist to city administrator Kristina Handt. In the letter, Malmquist outlined the limited availability of volunteer firefighters during the daytime hours. Many of the volunteers the department relied on during the day have moved on to full-time positions elsewhere and are no longer able to volunteer.

“At present, the only guaranteed daytime responders we have are myself 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and [Capitain] Nick Witter 7 a.m. to noon,” Malmquist wrote.

Malmquist said there are some short-term solutions but that the city needs to make a long-term plan.

One short-term fix would be to retrain the city’s building official — who was a firefighter earlier in his career — to respond to calls when available.

“We need some quick action, there is no doubt about it,” Malmquist said.

On July 11 the public safety committee reviewed data presented by Malmquist and provided recommendations for his presentation to the city council during its July 18 meeting.

According to data collected by Malmquist, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of volunteers available to respond to daytime calls to structure fires. Structure fires make up about 10 percent of the total calls to the fire department, Malmquist said. In 2012 an average of 14.25 responders would respond to a structure fire, and crews would be on location in less than 10 minutes from radio dispatch. In 2017 the average number of responders is 4.75 with a response time of 13.5 minutes — fewer responders and a longer response time, Malmquist said.

On average, the department’s command vehicles — black SUVs with lights and sirens — are able to be en route within one minute of the call from dispatch. Malmquist explained that command vehicles are “take-home” vehicles, meaning the on-call firefighter doesn’t have to drive to the station to pick up the vehicle before going to a call. That means a single responder can get to the scene quickly. For fire engines and ladder trucks, however, it can take between six and eight minutes for a firefighter to receive a call, go to the fire station, get in a fire truck and leave for the emergency.

While a single responder can begin to provide medical care or direct the public to safety, Malmquist said 90 percent of calls require two responders. In the case of a structure fire, OSHA requires a minimum of four fire responders before a crew enters a burning building.

“We can spray into a window from the outside, but we cannot go inside without four responders,” Malmquist said.

In the data presented, Malmquist showed that in 2015, 2016 and the first half of 2017, all the trucks that left the city’s two fire stations had an average of fewer than three responders per truck per call. In 2017 the average number of responders on Engine 2 from Station 2 was about 1.5 responders per call — meaning a significant number of calls had only one responder on the truck when it left the station.

“Coming from a safety standpoint, what do you need to respond to a structure fire?” asked safety committee member Lisa McGinn. “How can you fight any fire when you have one person on a truck and they trying to drive it and get there and do everything yourself? Obviously that is not a good situation.”

Malmquist presented three options for hiring either part-time or full-time firefighters to staff the fire department from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with two responders per shift every day. The proposed increase in annual salary costs ranged from $150,000 to $231,000, not including additional costs for training and equipment. The department would still rely on volunteer “paid-on-call” firefighters to respond during the evening hours and would accept volunteers if they were available during the day as backup.

“Bottom line, the council is going to look at how much is this going to cost the citizens of Lake Elmo,” McGinn said.

The city council will discuss the topic July 18.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]