BRAINERD, Minn. - Brainerd is considering restructuring its fire department, saving almost $266,000 a year by eliminating full-time firefighter positions stationed in its fire hall.
The department currently has five full-time equipment operators who work over three shifts to staff the fire hall 24 hours per day.
There is also 38 paid on-call firefighters.
Under the restructuring, those five full-time equipment operator positions would be eliminated. There would then only be a paid on-call department, headed by a fire chief and deputy chief. The department would increase its paid on-call payroll budget to accommodate the additional firefighters the department would hire.
The city simply says it can’t afford the current structure.
However, the firefighters are vehemently fighting the plan saying it’s a matter of safety and will lengthen response times to fires.
On Wednesday night, the Brainerd Fire Advisory board took no action on the plan, although they did vote 4-3 against asking the Brainerd City Council to put the issue to voters in a 2016 referendum.
Instead, the township supervisors who sit on the board from areas surrounding Brainerd said they will take the information on restructuring back to their respective boards at their next meetings to get their input and return to discuss the issue Oct. 14.
City Administrator Jim Thoreen, City Finance Director Connie Hillman and new Fire Chief Tim Holmes walked the board through what the paid on-call department would look like, and how it would differ from the current department structure.
Holmes said a group consisting of himself, city officials and representatives from the Minnesota Professional Firefighters -- the firefighters union -- have been working on restructuring discussions for about three months.
Holmes clarified the current department isn't a full-time department. Instead, it's a combination of full-time equipment operators supplemented by paid on-call firefighters. It would be perfect to have a department of 30 full-time firefighters, he said, but "that's just not economically feasible."
The estimated payroll costs of the proposed structure amount to $677,734. The estimated payroll costs for the current structure are $943,663 -- to create the estimated savings for 2016 of $265,929.
"I think this is a conservative number," Holmes said. "We have some numbers in there as padding to make sure we're covering the times that we think are going to be busy or have shown to be busy."
Holmes proceeded to address questions that have come up publicly during the process of looking into a paid on-call fire department. One of those questions surrounds the potential of insurance costs for residents rising because of the department restructuring.
Holmes said the group has talked to "several insurance agencies throughout the area" about the question. "None of them told me that their rates would change based on whether the department had full-time staff or paid on-call staff," Holmes said. "That wasn't one of their criteria that they based them on."
Another question that has arose during the discussion is if response times will increase. There's no data which indicate how the response times will be affected, Homes said, as Brainerd has never had a paid on-call department before.
Holmes did say past practices have been for fire calls to areas outside the city of Brainerd, the fire truck doesn't leave the station without a full crew of four firefighters. Of those four firefighters, only one is full-time; the rest are paid on-call, he said.
"Based on that, I don't see a lot of change in our response times based on being outside the city limits," Holmes said.
Holmes also said the group met with fire chiefs from three cities that have paid on-call fire departments: Elk River, Hutchinson and Fergus Falls. None of them endorsed the practice of leaving the fire hall on a call with only one firefighter on the truck, he said.
"They all agreed we need a full crew in that truck to serve the community most efficiently," Holmes said.
Thoreen added that paid on-call departments have been "working splendidly in those three communities, and we have full faith and trust in each one of those chiefs."
"To say that the model is not viable would be a misstatement," Thoreen said.
Still, if this change causes response times to jump by 20-30 minutes, Holmes said, "we're going to reevaluate this really quickly."
"We're not going to do anything to jeopardize the safety of the people that we serve," Holmes said.
However, the firefighters blasted the plan at the board meeting and also in a news conference before the gathering.
Speaking for the full-time fire equipment operators was Mark Turner, who serves as the Local 4725 president. He implored the board to reject the plan, as it is "first and foremost a safety issue."
Turner said response times will double or triple if the restructuring plan is adopted. In 2010, when the issue to move to a paid on-call fire department last came up, "there was not one citizen that came to the council meeting in favor of this decision," he said.
Turner said if two full-time firefighters were working, they would respond immediately to rural fire calls without waiting for two more paid on-call firefighters to arrive.
Turner said since former Fire Chief Kevin Stunek took over in 2010, "we have responded out the door immediately in rural settings" if two full-time firefighters were working.
Turner said former fire chiefs have said if the department loses three full-time staff members, the city of Brainerd could go down one notch in its rating for insurance.
Board member Bill Kronstedt, representing Maple Grove Township, said his biggest discomfort about the change was how it could affect the rating. It's an issue for homeowners as well as business owners carrying fire insurance policies, he said.
"It would be real nice to know today so we can make a judgment based on that," Kronstedt said. "But it's not going to happen."
Prior to Wednesday's meeting, members of the state and local Minnesota Professional Firefighters held a news conference where Chris Parsons, state president of the group, railed against the proposed restructuring and called it a "disastrous proposal." Parsons said the union has held a series of meetings with city administration about the issue, meetings he deemed "fairly unproductive."
"We've reached an impasse, so we have no alternative other than to bring our case directly to the people of Brainerd," Parsons said. "And try this case in open court."
Restructuring the fire department would put the five full-time equipment operators "on the unemployment line," Parsons said. A move to a paid on-call department would increase response times, he said, which "isn't what the people of Brainerd expect, and frankly, we don't feel it's what the people of Brainerd deserve."
Parsons questioned the cost saving estimates city staff put forth regarding the restructuring, and said the actual cost savings would be $80,000-$90,000. He also brought up the last time the idea of restructuring the department came up in 2010. Then, the city council voted to eliminate the full-time positions, and reversed its decision three weeks later, he said.
"We're no longer in a recession, but the citizens of Brainerd and Baxter and the other areas are once again threatened with degraded fire service," Parsons said.
However, Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson said at the later meeting that this is "a heavy decision" because between Brainerd and Baxter, the board is responsible for 20,000 people.
The paid on-call department is an idea the board has been asking for, Olson said, and his personal opinion is "I think it's worth giving it a shot."
It's important to evaluate the issue by the numbers, Carrie Allord, representing St. Mathias Township, said. But it's also important to remember the lives behind the numbers, she said.
Kronstedt said because of the gravity of the issue, he'd like to see the question put as a referendum to the citizens. It's not easy to do, he said, but he'd still like to see the people provide input.
Brainerd City Council member Sue Hilgart asked which areas would be included in the referendum, and whether it would include areas served by the fire department or just the city of Brainerd. Mark Platta, representing Crow Wing Township, said the referendum should be included in the 2016 general election in order to save on costs. However, the advisory board then voted down the proposal.