The Brainerd Fire Advisory Board Wednesday took no action on restructuring the Brainerd Fire Department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department.
Instead, the township supervisors who sit on the board will take the information on restructuring the department back to their respective boards at their next meetings in order to get input on the issue.
City Administrator Jim Thoreen, City Finance Director Connie Hillman and 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. The department currently has five full-time equipment operators who work over three shifts to staff the fire hall 24 hours per day.
Under the restructuring, those five positions would be eliminated. The paid on-call department would have three full-time positions: a fire chief, Holmes; an administrative specialist, Elaine Kraemer; and a fire marshal/deputy chief, Holmes said. The department would increase its paid on-call payroll budget to accommodate the additional paid on-call firefighters the department would hire.
Holmes clarified the department as-is 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. This creates an 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. Responses were mixed on how the companies based their rates, with some basing rates on insurance service office ratings, some on distance from a fire station and some solely on address or ZIP code, he said.
"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."
During the process, Holmes said the group met with an ISO representative who performed the city's latest ISO survey. The rep said the city's ISO rating of four would not be affected by the move to a paid on-call department, he said. The ISO rating also wouldn't change until the next survey, due in 2016.
Another question that has arose during the discussion is if response times will increase because of the restructuring, Holmes said. There's no data which indicate how the response times will be affected he 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.
Over the past 2-3 months, Holmes said, 70 percent of the time there was only one full-time firefighter at the fire hall. There may be changes to times in the city limits, he said, "but I've been asked for a firm number, I'm not going to give a firm number because we don't have data to support it."
As part of their due diligence, Holmes 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 said 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. "We've done a lot of research, we've talked to a lot of people, and they all agree with us that the proposal we have set forth in front of you is a proposal that is viable and works."
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.
"That's not what you said the first time," Holmes replied.
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 ISO rating. The rating won't be affected immediately, he said, but once the rating drops, "we're going to be stuck behind, we're going to be following the leader for a while."
Board member Bill Kronstedt, representing Maple Grove Township, said his biggest discomfort about the change was how it could affect the ISO 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."
Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson said this is "a heavy decision," because between Brainerd and Baxter, the board is responsible for 20,000 people.
"So it's a very heavy decision and we don't want to make the wrong move," Olson said.
As the new fire chief, Holmes has brought along new ideas, Olson said, which the board had been asking for for a long time.
"Nobody's ever come back," Olson said. "It's always been, 'This is the way we have to do it or the whole world will end.'"
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.
Allord said she would be hesitant to make a decision on a recommendation to move forward with the process without first presenting the info to her township board, which other representatives agreed with. 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.
Allord said her concern with a referendum would be getting information to voters about the issue, so they can cast an informed ballot.
"How are we going to educate the people?" Allord said. "And is there going to be a cost in that?"
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.
A motion on recommending a referendum on the issue to the Brainerd City Council failed on a 3-4 vote, with Olson, Hilgart, Allord and the Long Lake Township representative voting against the motion.
Instead, the supervisors representing their townships will present the restructuring plan to their boards at their next meetings. Those townships are:
• Crow Wing Township
• Long Lake Township
• Maple Grove Township
• Nokay Lake Township
• Oak Lawn Township
• St. Mathias Township
• Crow Wing County Unorganized Territory
The board also set its next meeting for 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14
Prior to Wednesday's meeting, members of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters held a news conference on the lawn in front of the Crow Wing County Land Service building, where the meeting took place. There, state and local union representatives addressed local and Twin Cities-based media members about the issue.
Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Firefighters, 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.
Turner, president of Local 4725, followed Parsons' comments with his own. As a Brainerd resident, he said he "wants what's best for this community."
The department has had the same level of full-time staff since the 1970s, Turner said, and is one of the few city departments to not see a staffing increase during that time. He said the majority of citizens and businesses he's spoken to oppose the restructuring.
"They've been pretty heartfelt about it, not just trying to pacify me," Turner said. "Hopefully the city will not go through with this decision."