Burning Down the Firehouse

The fierce debate about public safety in Minneapolis has all the makings of an epic Hollywood disaster flick: Heroic rank-and-file firefighters seethe with anger over their betrayal at the hands of an ambitious chief; the chief’s love for number crunching has left him estranged from the people on the rigs he once captained; the City Council and mayor are at odds with a militant union and generally clueless about the risks their decisions have created; and a city full of people blithely goes about its business, assuming that when you call 911, somebody’s going to show up in time.

Last January, when city leaders first began to get a whiff of the budget-cutting climate at the Capitol, Mayor R.T. Rybak asked each department manager in the city to put together a business plan reflecting the prospect of large cuts in state aid to Minneapolis. Fire Chief Rocco Forte and his staff eagerly dived into the task of redefining fire department operations and in May released a business plan that—depending on whom you’re talking to—is either the envy of every city manager or a prescription for disaster.

The plan is a 79-page document. It is filled with trends and initiatives, revenue models, and staffing strategies. It also paints a slightly schizoid picture of the future of firefighting in Minneapolis. The plan is so loaded with wacky, desperate ideas for how to raise money (advertising on fire trucks, emergency medical services for public events, pull tabs), you’re tempted to think that someday soon all ladder trucks will come equipped with espresso bars and slot machines. Then you glance at the more sober long-range finance plan, and you begin to wonder whether firefighting operations in 2008 will largely consist of a two-person bucket brigade showing up in a station wagon.

Minneapolis already employs fewer firefighters than any other comparably sized city in the country. But the Minneapolis Fire Department will be getting a lot leaner in the next five years, if state aid to the city continues to decline at the rate projected by Rybak and the City Council, and if they follow the plan authored by Chief Forte. Average daily staffing levels will drop from 97 firefighters today to about 85 next year, before dipping to 84 in 2005. Here, at the midpoint of his projections, Forte says we’ve reached the “absolute minimum level of daily staffing required to maintain safe and effective emergency and fire response for the citizens of the City of Minneapolis.” But terrifyingly, the plan doesn’t stop there. Projected department cuts of more than $700,000 in both 2006 and 2007 will bring the daily staffing down to 80. Another $211,000 cut in 2008 and we’ve got 79 firefighters on duty each day.

It may seem an odd exercise for Chief Forte to visualize so dutifully the complete and utter evisceration of his own department. (Police Chief Robert Olson’s response to the council’s request, by contrast, essentially was to flip them the bird.) But Forte is a numbers guy, someone who’s happy to trot out a doomsday scenario to make a political point. What that point may be exactly (leverage in current union negotiations, a slap at Pawlenty and Republican legislators, a testimony to his own administrative brilliance), only the chief seems to know.

Forte has already closed two of the less-busy ladder companies (Number 8 on the South Side and Number 7 in Northeast) and is now running three-person crews on 12 of the city’s 19 engines. The business plan hints at hiring college students and volunteer firefighters to take up the slack.

To fully grasp the enormity of these projected cuts, consider that the recent fire on East Lake Street that destroyed a partially constructed housing project required the attention of 70 firefighters. That left fewer than 30 to cover the rest of the city. And though it’s relatively rare for two structural fires to break out at any one time (there were 18 such instances in 2002), those 30 firefighters also had to be available for EMS runs. The upshot is this: Based on our present budgetary course, the Minneapolis Fire Department’s ability to do its job is already being tested. It will be severely hampered as early as next year. It will be effectively crippled by 2006. “If staffing is reduced below the level of 84 personnel deployed on response vehicles,” the plan warns, “the Minneapolis Fire Department will not be able to handle more than one structural line fire simultaneously and still be able to provide effective emergency medical service in the city.”

The cuts sparked union protests at City Hall last spring. Even more embarrassing, last month at a conference in Canada, our very own fire department was singled out by International Association of Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger as the worst example of cuts in service at any fire department in the United States. In a speech to fire chiefs of North America’s largest cities, he called the situation in Minneapolis “a recipe for disaster.” He said, “Minneapolis is not Podunk! It is a big city with big-city fires and emergencies that require fully trained personnel and safe staffing that complies with national standards.” Chief Forte—who says he was “disheartened” by Schaitberger’s statement—is quick to note that he won’t be happy until he has 27 rigs carrying four firefighters each. The business plan, he says, is all about “contingencies.” He says he has no intention of having his department operate anywhere near those levels. But critics say the department has already downshifted toward a firefighting strategy based on fewer ladders and fewer personnel. (Forte has already been given permission by the council to replace several older trucks with combination ladder-and-engine units, called “quints,” which are designed to be run with three people. The union’s view is that quints are a safety compromise.) “I’m sure he was trying to do a good job, trying to trim the fat,” says Tom Thornberg, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters Association. “What made the firefighters so angry with the chief was that he was the first guy to wave his plan in the council’s face. He stepped right up to the plate and said, ‘Here you go; here’s how we can do it.’ The council called him the best city manager ever, and the firefighters were like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5