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Brainerd City Council: Two firefighter positions safe - for now

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Two Brainerd firefighter positions are safe — at least until the end of the year.

Funding for the two positions runs out at the end of April, forcing city staff to look at other options.

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The Brainerd Fire Department received the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant funding in September 2010 to hire two full-time fire equipment operators, covering wages and benefits of the positions from April 2011-April 2013.

Now that funding is almost out, city officials are tasked with the decision of keeping the two staff members on board at full cost to the city or letting them go.

Federal Emergency Management Agency may open the grant application again sometime this year, in which case the department would again apply for funds.

Without the two firefighters, it would bring the full-time staffing levels down to four, since one other employee is out temporarily through worker’s compensation.

Firefighters Cory Zeien and Clinton Langerud were hired through the grant, bringing the staffing level to seven full-time employees. The department was previously forced to decrease to five employees in 2008 because of retirements and attrition.

With the fire department’s grant ending, Fire Chief Kevin Stunek has met with city officials for a few weeks, trying to determine the city’s options. The department’s budget cannot make up for the loss of grant funding since a bare minimum budget was adopted at the beginning of the year.

The estimated cost to retain the two employees through the end of this year is $96,000. There is a $24,000 salary savings, however, on each option with the one employee out on worker’s compensation.

The options presented are:

1. Lay off the two employees. There would be an estimated $52,000 cost, most for unemployment compensation.

2. Delay transfer to Fire Capital Fund. The transfer is required from the Public Safety Fund, but could be delayed. The city would have to make that transfer during 2014 budgeting.

3. Additional 2013 fire service billing. The city could request districts make an additional payment for the year.

4. Lay off one employee. The cost through 2013 would be $50,000.

5. Lay off one employee on May 1 and the other Aug. 1 when the current worker’s compensation claim is over. The cost to the city would be $38,000.

With the council’s vote Monday to go with option two, the city will hold off transferring funds to its Fire Capital Fund. It is money from local town entities that they pay for services by the Brainerd Fire Department.

“Unfortunately, that’s a short term solution,” said council member Kelly Bevans. “It borrows money from capital equipment. ... It’s the best use of funds right now.”

Sooner or later, that $73,000 will have to be put back in the Fire Capital Fund, said City Administrator Theresa Goble.

The city will notify the entities involved what they are doing with the money. The council will ask the entities to help out financially to help cover the cost.

“Eight months buys us time,” said Stunek. “It allows us to look at if we can manage what we are trying to do here.”

In that time, city staff will look at cost-savings department-wide. That may or may not mean the two staff positions will be kept after the end of the year.

Voting against the motion to go with the second option was council member Mary Koep.

In other Fire Department news:

The council voted to stop having the Brainerd Fire Department respond to medical calls.

The topic of medical calls will now be referred to the Safety and Public Works Committee for further direction.

The department started its medical response within city limits in late August 2012. Traditionally, the fire department has gone to medical calls at crash scenes only. Now, firefighters go on more medical calls like assists, falls, shortness of breath, diabetic reactions, seizures, cardiac arrests, poisoning, strokes and trauma.

The department averages 77 medical calls per month.

Going on medical calls is a routine response among many fire departments across the state and country, said Stunek.

Public education is important, said councilman Dale Parks. Residents need to understand why it is happening, he added.

Stunek agreed.

Fire department staff is often on-scene before the ambulance arrives, Stunek said, as the ambulance may not be positioned as centrally as the fire department is.

Fire department staff are trained and certified to EMT level. When on medical calls, fire department staff gather medical information and make an initial assessment, which could include administering oxygen, obtaining vitals or performing CPR.

The biggest question is why bring that big red truck on those medical calls, Stunek said.

The answer, he said, is if staff is on a medical call and they get a fire call, it would take a lot of time to go back to station and get the bigger truck.

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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