Burning Down the Firehouse

While the union seethed over the chief’s apparent eagerness to cut jobs, the rank and file wondered out loud why the council couldn’t dip into some of its reserve funds to keep the department fully staffed. Some pointed to the $30 million “Hilton Fund” (money earned from the sale of the downtown Hilton hotel); others looked to the millions already in question in the city’s embattled Neighborhood Revitalization Program. The council demurred on both counts, arguing that none of these funds were available.

I took the question to the council myself. “If pushed hard enough, we would tap into the Hilton money,” says 10th Ward Council Member Dan Niziolek, chair of the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee. “But if we tap into it right now, we’ll lose 50 percent of its value. We’d be writing off millions of dollars, and that has long-term implications.”

There’s not a lot of NRP money, he explains, and it’s tied up legally with legislative mandates. The best bet may be money from Target Center, which he says should be going into the city’s general fund. But if there’s a change coming, it won’t be anytime soon. “Nobody liked the choices we had to make this year,” he says. “We’re not at a level that we’re happy with right now, and the major effort right now is to rebuild the strength of our public safety.”

What that effort might entail at this point is anyone’s guess, since Niziolek and the rest of the council seem to be leaning happily on Chief Forte’s assurances that he’ll be able to turn the department into a profit center sometime before the next five-alarm blaze. But if that fire happens first, one wonders who in City Hall will get burned the worst—the accommodating chief or the city council playing Russian roulette.

One of the reasons Forte is well-liked by the council is that he seems to be making the numbers work. He argues that his new deployment strategy—mixing and matching three- and four-person crews and juggling ventilation and other ladder company duties between the crews of whatever apparatus arrives first on the scene—has allowed the department to maintain its response times with fewer resources. Indeed, he points to a May 3 fire at 29th and Ulysses in Northeast Minneapolis as an example of how the department can respond with fewer people and fewer ladder companies. “It is critical at this point in time to get more flexibility out of our existing suppression force, and our incident command system and deployment strategies allow us to do just that,” Forte wrote in a May 6 email to firefighter Josh Tunks. “I want to emphasize that our system is working exactly the way it was presented to [the] council.”

What about Pearl Gallagher? Would Ladder 8 have made a difference? When I ask Chief Forte point-blank, he bristles slightly before replying that the department “met all the standards” in responding to that fire. He says he’d need 38 rigs to fully staff every station in the city. Sometimes, no matter how many firefighters you’ve got, people still die, he says. “I don’t want to appear callous, but we had fire deaths before the budget cuts and we’re going to have fire deaths after the budget cuts.”

I hear they’re riding four to a rig up at Station 14, but when I show up mid-morning on the Fourth of July to get a glimpse of a fully staffed outfit, the big red doors are open and both rigs are gone. A guy unloading cases of soda from a station wagon tells me the crews are out and about.

The vintage station at 33rd and James has the look of a Carnegie library, all blond brick and neo-deco flourishes with real brass firepoles. It’s spartan and slightly soiled, nicely echoing the look of this quiet North Side neighborhood. Before long, the big ladder truck rolls up and backs gingerly into the garage. The captain jumps out of the cab to greet me. “Fire already this morning?” I ask. “Nope,” he says, flashing a sandwich from Subway. “Lunch.”

He invites me into the cramped kitchen and dining area at the back of the station, where ESPN plays on a TV overlooking the table, and the rest of the crew is quickly assembling a meal. A bulletin board carries various official-looking documents and, I notice, a press clipping announcing Pearl Gallagher’s death. On the clipping someone has scrawled in black magic marker an undecipherable comment relating to the recent layoffs.

Around the table, small talk easily turns to grousing about the chief’s five-year plan and his betrayal of the rank and file. “People heard about being laid off on the TV news,” one firefighter says. Another speculates that Forte wants to create and run a county-wide fire department. Yet another laments the long distance they have to travel to cover for a Northeast ladder company that has been shut down.

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