Fire departments challenged to find qualified volunteers

Stations in Dakota County, throughout the state face same obstacles

by Jeffrey Hage
Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

Apple Valley’s volunteer fire crews fought a daytime fire on Freesia Way on a cold March day with plenty of snow on the ground. Daytime fire coverage is a challenge for many area fire departments as some volunteers have full-time jobs that have them commuting out of the local area. (Photos by Tad Johnson)
Apple Valley’s volunteer fire crews fought a daytime fire on Freesia Way on a cold March day with plenty of snow on the ground. Daytime fire coverage is a challenge for many area fire departments as some volunteers have full-time jobs that have them commuting out of the local area. (Photo by Tad Johnson)

Shortly before 11 p.m. Jan. 15, a fiery explosion ripped through the Coin-Tainer Co.’s block-long manufacturing facility in Milaca.

As fire lit the January night sky, firefighters from four departments as close as Milaca and as far away as Onamia (22 miles north of Milaca) left the warm confines of their homes to fight the fire in 19-degree temperatures.

All were volunteers.

As of 2012, there were 1.1 million firefighters in the United States and 70 percent were volunteers, according to data provided by the Mound Fire Department.

“They don’t do it for the money,” said Greg Lerud, co-chief of the Milaca Fire Department. “They do it to give back to the community.”

But the demands of training, an increasing number of emergency calls, a desire to be involved in the busy world of family activities and a firefighter candidate pool that is increasingly more transient are making fire service less attractive to volunteers throughout Minnesota.
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“To address and attract volunteers, we are much more open with them on the front side to ensure that they know what they are getting themselves into,” said Rosemount Fire Chief Richard Schroeder. “We make sure to inform them about the time commitment and what it is going to take to make it through the first two years of training and time away from their family. Even as thorough as we are in explaining things to them, we still lose 30-40 percent of the new hires. It just becomes too much.”

All firefighter candidates in Minnesota must complete state-mandated Firefighter I and Firefighter II courses, which take up more than 200 hours of a candidate’s time in the first two years.

Firefighters have always needed to pass physical agility tests, but criminal background checks have become mandatory under state law. All firefighters must receive medical and hazmat training.

“The public has an expectation when they call 911 that they’re getting the best possible people, so that’s why we have that process to make it tough to get on – because we want quality people,” said Doug Nelson, assistant fire chief with the Burnsville Fire Department and former 23-year firefighter with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department.

These time-consuming requirements can turn away potential firefighters, Dayton Fire Chief Jason Mickelson said.

That time commitment concerns Loretto Fire Chief Jeff Leuer, who foresees an impending decline in volunteer firefighters.

“The mandated training that a firefighter needs to take and sustain is a lot of hours,” Leuer said. “I tell someone you need to commit at least eight hours a week for meeting, training and public events, and they say they just don’t have that.”

Schroeder, like many of his colleagues, attributes those challenges to people’s time commitments.

“The biggest reason that volunteers quit is the tremendous time commitment that they must give, which takes time away from their families,” Schroeder said. “I can totally relate to them as I have been there and gone through what they are experiencing.”

“Volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters are a dying breed,” said Farmington Fire Chief Tim Pietsch. In Sun Thisweek and the Dakota County Tribune’s coverage area, only Burnsville has a full-time fire department.

“It takes a lot of sacrifice from families, full-time jobs,” Pietsch said, “just making the overall commitment, training, making calls, etc.”

Scott Anderson, fire chief in Maple Grove, has noticed that most new firefighters leave before five years of service. They encounter more family responsibilities, job changes and the desire to go back to school for advanced training and degrees.

Norwood-Young America Fire Chief Steve Zumberge said recruiting firefighters is not as easy as it used to be.

“We used to have a waiting list. … Now we’re about to advertise,” Zumberge said.

Pietsch said posting a “help wanted” banner outside the station has been effective in recruiting candidates.

Anderson has used creative efforts to recruit daytime firefighters. He has stopped at garage sales and asked about who is home during the day. He then knocks on doors and asks whether anyone there is interested in being a firefighter. Maple Grove firefighters also use classroom visits as a recruitment tool. They ask kids to talk with parents about becoming firefighters.
Old days gone

John Wolff, fire chief in Chanhassen, noted about 50 percent of his community is transient, pulling people who could be valuable volunteer firefighters out of the community for most of the day.

Some surveys have said that 62 percent of Dakota County residents commute outside of the county each day.

With the exception of small, rural fire departments where many firefighters work in small towns, many other fire departments are struggling to recruit crews with members who are on board for fires in the daytime.

In Rockford, Fire Chief Ben Sanderson told the Rockford City Council recently that, due to schedules and conflicts, about half the current members show up on calls.

“We’re burning out the 15 people who can show up to calls as it is,” he said.

Rockford is considering adding a reserve team of 10 that would presumably result in an additional five members at a call. Albertville, St. Michael and Monticello have added similar programs.

Schroeder said Rosemount having a “duty crew” for daytime calls could be explored in the future.

Pietsch said Farmington has a number of firefighters who work night shifts, so it has been getting by for daytime response.

Rosemount recently hired one firefighter as a city employee for daytime response.

“This is a concept that was used back in the day when I was hired and I have a feeling that cities may have to move back toward that trend to get daytime responders,” Schroeder said.

“Full-time firefighters will cost a lot of money; most cities do not have the resources available to fund such a proposal,” Pietsch said. “We actively try to recruit daytime personnel.”

Maple Grove’s Anderson grew up in a small town where the fire department responded to around three calls per week. The owner of a hardware store could post a sign on his door saying something like, “Gone to fire call. Be back soon.”

Those days are gone, Anderson noted.

Chief Mike Rademacher, during the recruitment process with Northeast Sherburne, lets his firefighters know that family comes first and the department is comfortable giving its firefighters some leeway when it comes to family dynamics. Northeast Sherburne also organizes activities for the spouses of firefighters that bring the department closer as a “family,” Rademacher said.

The city of Rosemount is approved to have 50 firefighters. It is currently reviewing a group of new potential recruits and will likely generate a new pool of candidates in July for activation in October.

Schroeder hopes out of those two pools to boost the force to 50 by the end of 2015.

“That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time, he said.

Pietsch said the department is in the process of adding four to six new members to fill its roster of 50.

Wolff said the majority of firefighters who join his Chanhassen department will make it about 10 years.

“Some will make it 20,” he said.

“It gets harder and harder every year to attract volunteers and ones that will stick around for 20 years,” Schroeder said.

The city of Rosemount is in the process of increasing the yearly retirement amount for each year of service.

“I am hoping that the higher dollar figure will play a big part in attracting new hires and keeping them around for a minimum of 10 years,” he said.

Schroeder said the city may also change its current $10/fire call stipend to hourly pay.

“(It is my hope this will) be a better recruiting tool to get and keep personnel on the department,” Schroeder said.

Dayton’s Mickelson said once a new firefighter has signed on to serve the community, it is easier to retain them.

“Newer firefighters tend to be tech savvy, where older firefighters sometimes struggle to use items like laptops and iPads,” he said.

Some have joined fire departments and stayed on for years, even decades.

“I think most firefighters join to help others in their time of need, whether it be a fire or a health problem,” Mickelson said. “Most are joining to give something back to their communities.”

Jeff Hage can be reached at [email protected] Editors Adam Gruenewald, Jessica Harper, Sue Van Cleaf, Theresa Malloy, Eric Hagen and Tad Johnson contributed to this story.