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Duluth charter change would be needed to hire 3rd deputy chief

The Duluth City Council took up an ordinance Monday that would have authorized the creation a third deputy chief of training position to the fire department's roster. All nine councilors had to approve the ordinance to amend the charter accordingly, but 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle voted against the charter change. (News Tribune / File photo)

The Duluth City Council recently shot down a proposal to add a third deputy chief of training position to the fire department's roster, but Fire Chief Dennis Edwards hasn't given up hope.

The fire department's leadership structure is spelled out in the city charter, and the Duluth City Council took up an ordinance Monday that would have authorized the creation of the new post. All nine councilors had to approve the ordinance to amend the charter accordingly.

Jay FosleEight did, but 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle voted against the charter change.

Fosle offered no explanation at the time. Later, he told the Duluth News Tribune's he was concerned the new job would add to the city's already-substantial payroll.

Yet Council President Noah Hobbs noted the new position would not actually expand the size of the fire department.

"It's not a new position. It's a reclassification of a position that we already have. So, it's not adding a person to the department," he said.

The proposed position was expected to increase the department's payroll by no more than about $3,000, said Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth.

But Fosle predicted the pay gap would grow in subsequent years, as the new deputy chief climbed the pay scale.

"That's two steps higher, so how can it not cost more money?" he asked, suggesting the move ultimately would add about $10,000 to the fire department's payroll.

Edwards said the wages in the supervisory unit are very similar to those of other firefighters and provide only modest incremental growth.

"It's not like the wages are going to run out of control," he said, noting that the deputy chief of training job would be a salaried position, not one that also offers overtime pay.

Furthermore, Edwards said the person in that role would be in charge of seeking additional training grants that could bolster local funds with outside resources.

Fosle also suggested the new deputy chief position would make the department "top-heavy."

He pointed to the city of Rochester, Minn., with one chief, one deputy chief and a battalion chief for for each shift.

Fosle questioned why Duluth, population 86,000, should have more people in leadership roles than Rochester, a city of nearly 116,000.

"I compared other cities that are larger than us, and they have less top employees like that," he said, adding: "I've done my due diligence."

But Edwards said the Duluth Fire Department's command staff is as lean as they come for the unit's size. He noted that when Rochester's battalion chiefs are factored into the picture the city has eight chiefs overseeing 93 firefighters.

In contrast, he said: "We, in Duluth, basically have three people supervising 135-plus, and that's not even counting the life-safety division."

Edwards noted that the fire department plans to deploy a new all-hazard response boat this year, and said local firefighters will require extensive training.

"The training officer will be out there, working long hours to coordinate that, but it's very important when we have a new program. It's important to have that capability in this port that we've never had before that our firefighters are trained to best possible standards in safety," he said.

Edwards said the training demands of the department have grown substantially to keep pace with new technology, such as drones, and best practices in dealing with hazardous materials.

Fosle sees little reason why the department needs to add to its command staff in order to address training needs, however.

"They already have a trainer. Why do they have to make him an assistant chief?" he asked.

Hobbs takes a different view, saying: "I think fire departments today look a lot different than they did even 15 or 20 years ago. There's more training. There are more obligations we've placed on our firefighters. I think with this position and the higher focus it puts on training, you certainly increase the ability to secure grant dollars and be more efficient with the limited training dollars that we do have. So, to me, it seemed like a pretty easy decision to say 'yes'... so our fire department is better equipped to handle the challenges of today."

Edwards said he's eager to respond to any council concerns and still holds out hope of garnering sufficient support for the new assistant fire chief of training position.

If not, the city administration could put its request for a charter change to a referendum vote in November, with council approval to do so.

"We're looking at our available options and are trying to decide how to proceed," Schuchman said.

"For a job that is as dangerous as the work that firefighters do, training is vitally important to be able to keep firefighters safe," he said. "I'm willing to spend a little more money if it increases the safety of firefighters."

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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