North St. Paul Fire Department applies for staffing grant


The North St. Paul Fire Department recently applied for a grant that would allow them to fund part-time firefighters. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Fewer firefighters available to respond to emergency calls

Times are changing for small community fire departments and the North St. Paul Fire Department is not excluded. The department is struggling to fill on-call shifts with its volunteer firefighters, but department leaders say they’re not afraid to change with the times.

On March 25, the North St. Paul Fire Department submitted a FEMA SAFER Grant application for $295,068 to hire part-time staff to work on-call shifts that are difficult for volunteer staff to fill, such as nights, weekends and holidays. On April 5, the North St. Paul City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution supporting this grant application. Council member Terry Furlong was absent.

The National Fire Protection Association provides a guideline for fire responses called Standard 1720, which sets that the minimum staffing requirements at 10 firefighters on scene within 10 minutes for 80 percent of the calls. 

According to Fire Chief Scott Duddeck, in 2014 and 2015 the North St. Paul Fire Department had at least 10 firefighters on scene within 10 minutes only 58 percent of the time.

“A few years ago we talked about the ISO rating that we had for our insurance rates. At that time our staffing and our response time met the threshold, so our ISO rating was favorable and that directly affects everyone’s insurance rates — homeowners insurance rates, business insurance rates,” Duddeck said.

The ISO rate is the statistical risk as determined by the Insurance Service Office, an advisory organization that provides information for use by insurance companies. The ISO rate is determined with the help of the National Fire Protection Association standards.

“If we fall below these NFPA requirements, then we run the risk of our fire rate increasing, which then the effect is increasing rates to homeowners,” Duddeck said.

“Today we’re not meeting [the requirements] any longer.”

On average 11 or 12 paid-per-call firefighters, roughly one-third of the firefighters on the department, show up to a fire call, but because that number is an average, one call may have had six people responding while another may have had 16 people responding. Despite the average, the department is still unable to meet the NFPA standard 80 percent of the time.

If nothing changes, a further decrease in Standard 1720 compliance is expected in the next couple of years because the fire department is experiencing a relatively high turnover rate and attracting very few recruits.

 

Dwindling interest means fewer firefighters

The fire department currently has 34 members. One is out on medical leave. One is a probationary firefighter. Nine members are currently eligible for retirement; five more members will be eligible for retirement in two years. 

Thirty firefighters have retired, resigned or been terminated in the last five years, and 18 of those firefighters served five years or less. This year there was only one new recruit, though last year there were six, and in 2014 there were three.

If the FEMA SAFER Grant is awarded, the department will be able to offer part-time positions to some of their volunteer firefighters. Part-time positions would provide those firefighters more reliable pay, which helps offset the time commitment.

According to Duddeck, volunteer firefighters currently make around $10 per hour while responding to an emergency and $3.50 to be on-call. 

The part-time firefighters that would be hired with the grant money would work about 16 to 28 hours per week with an estimated pay rate of $14 per hour when they are on-call.

Fire department leaders also expect the FEMA SAFER Grant to help the department adapt to a changing call volume.

The North St. Paul Fire Department responded to 285 calls already in the first quarter of 2016. Duddeck expects around 1,200 calls this year, though the current record high is 1,100 calls in a year. Seven of the 285 calls were for building fires, and 228 of those calls were medical related.

“Eighty percent of our fire department activity currently is related to a medical-type call,” Duddeck said.

To target these types of calls, the fire department always has two first responders on-call who each use a take-home vehicle to wait at their home until they are needed. When they are paged for a call, they are able to leave directly from their homes to the incident to help ambulance staff. If the situation warrants additional help, the first responders will call for more firefighters to respond.

Duddeck explained that nights, weekends and holidays are increasingly difficult to cover with the current volunteer model because the volunteers have other jobs and families, and can’t always commit to these times. Currently, the volunteer firefighters sign up online two months in advance for shifts they can commit to work. 

“It’s not being filled in its entirety which is why we are looking at doing this, and even if we don’t get this [grant] about requiring our current staff to take at least one 12 hour shift a month,” Duddeck said.

 

After two years, what then?

If the grant is awarded, the plan is for the part-time firefighters to work scheduled on-call shifts that volunteer firefighters find difficult to cover, such as nights, weekends and holidays. Like the current volunteer firefighters, they will remain at home while on-call, so it will probably be required that they live in North St. Paul. Once the part-time positions become available, they will be first offered to the existing volunteers before the rest of the community.

“We want to stay in the community. We want our people to do it,” Duddeck said. 

The FEMA SAFER grant does not require the city to match any funds, but the grant period only lasts two years. Duddeck explained that if the department is awarded the grant, it plans to use the money as a two-year “pilot project” which will help the fire department see how this new model will work in North St. Paul, gauge how many current volunteers will sign up and better understand options for the future.

At the workshop before the city council meeting, council member Tom Sonnek shared his concern that if the project is a success, the city may be asked to fund its continuation after the grant period is over. 

“Is it going to be too hard to not fund it after that point?” he asked. 

Council member Candy Petersen had similar concerns after the city council meeting. She said she doesn’t know if the city budget will allow part-time firefighters to be staffed after the grant expires, but she does understand the struggles volunteers find with the time commitment, and she is willing to look into the proposed model.

“I think it’s a good program, but I don’t want to make it in lieu of our volunteer fire department,” Petersen said. “At least this gives us two years.”

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at akinney@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

 

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