Burning Down the Firehouse

He points to certificates from the National Fire Academy that line the walls of his office. He’s been attending the academy since 1983 and credits the training he’s received there for his improved managerial skills. It was the academy that stressed the importance of writing a department business plan. It was the academy that pushed him to find new revenue sources.

Those moneymaking sources are out there to be tapped, Forte argues. The department last year increased its revenues by 69 percent and expects to raise them by another 20 percent this year. He says the county will soon be paying the department for extricating people from their vehicles after accidents; he’s confident he’ll be able to collect insurance money for EMS runs; and the department will soon be getting paid for doing housing inspections. NASCAR-like ads on all the rigs are a little less certain, he says. “Nobody’s done that yet.”

If anyone’s going to do it, it’s Forte. To him, it all makes perfect business sense, part of a larger goal of getting the department national accreditation, something he says fewer than 60 departments nationwide have achieved. (Burnsville has the only accredited fire department in Minnesota.) Accreditation could lower the city’s insurance rates and help Forte hunt down more federal grant money, but it would also elevate the department into the nation’s elite forces—and raise Forte’s already sterling public profile. To do that, though, the department must get back to the staffing levels it enjoyed before this spring’s budget cuts, whether by crazy money-generating schemes or a serious reality check at the council.

“The key is January and the 2004 budget,” Forte says. “[Local Government Aid] cuts won’t be as severe and the financial initiatives could help.” If all goes well, there will be no new layoffs, he’ll bring back as many of the laid-off firefighters as he can afford, and he’ll get the cadet class back in school. “We’re going to get these firefighters back,” he says.

Daniel Casper, for one, is hoping the chief is right. Hired in June 2002, the 36-year-old former teacher graduated from rookie class in December and was laid off with 44 other firefighters (10 others took early retirement) in April. Since then, he’s been lobbying the chief and City Council members to come clean to the public about the risks inherent in the cuts that claimed his job.

“The frustrating thing has been trying to convince the powers that be that there is an issue, trying to convince the City Council that it wasn’t just about a bunch of people angry about their layoffs,” he says. “This is an issue for everybody.”

Casper says he took a 40-percent pay cut when he gave up his teaching position in the Hopkins School District to sign on as a firefighter. He was attracted by the sheer physicality of the job, he says, and by the way it translates public service into day-to-day results. He waited two years to get onto the force (“and that’s fast,” he says), survived a rookie school that featured all the discipline and focus he could ask for (“the captains were real drill sergeants”), and was finally assigned to a station just when rumors of layoffs were on the breeze.

“I had this captain on my ladder company who was always trying to get me to take a chew of tobacco. He said they’d never lay off firefighters. I told him, ‘If you’re right and it doesn’t happen, I’ll take a chew,’” Casper recalls. He won the bet but lost his job. Today, Casper spends his days sitting nervously in the passenger seat of driver-training cars, his foot steady on the extra brake, as his teenage student drivers navigate unsteadily on streets he once surveyed from the tiller of a big red ladder truck. He figures he’s pretty low on the department’s call-back list, but what that means is anybody’s guess right now.

It’s hard for somebody from outside the culture of firefighters to grasp the allure of this job, the connections forged between people working together every day to save lives, but here’s Daniel Casper, whose aborted firefighting career amounted to no more than a few 24-hour shifts, sitting at his dining-room table talking passionately about the dangers his brothers and sisters on the force—and the people of Minneapolis—are now facing daily. It’s a little like my cousin Ron who got his leg shot up in Vietnam and fought with the desk jockeys who ordered him to go home. To him, it just wasn’t right to leave his buddies out there in harm’s way.

At the big Lake Street fire in June, Casper watched from the sidelines as crew after crew battled the three-alarm blaze through the night. At one point, he ran into Chief Forte, who assured him that he’d soon be calling people back to work. But Casper left unconvinced. “The rumors are all over the place,” he says. “I’ve just heard so many possibilities, and I don’t know how viable they are. It could be years.”

Then, in mid-July, Casper and his compatriots were summoned to the newly remodeled Station Six, where Forte and Rybak acknowledged that the St. Paul Fire Department was adding to its force by aggressively recruiting the already-trained firefighters Minneapolis apparently can no longer afford to employ. Rybak and Forte told them that the department’s revenue-generating plans are moving along so well that they hope to be able to bring all 32 of them back in January.

Even leaving aside the bizarre notion that St. Paul, whose population is 100,000 less than Minneapolis, may, by the end of the year, have as many firefighters as its upstream neighbor, Rybak’s announcement rises effortlessly to the level of parody. Imagine the scene: The mayor and the fire chief plead with the firefighters whose jobs they just axed to hold on for a few more months so that the city’s mammoth training investment (a cool $1.6 million) isn’t stolen by the sharps across the river whose own budget-cutting process has apparently allowed them to increase their firefighting force.

The mayor’s message was received with guarded enthusiasm by many of the assembled, including Casper, who says that he now hopes the mayor and the council finally get it. “It still remains to be seen,” he says. “I do feel a certain sense of allegiance to Minneapolis, and so, in some ways, I don’t like the idea of a group of us migrating. At the same time, it would be crazy for anybody in our position not to apply and not to keep our options open.”

The upshot of the episode is that Rybak and the council are going to get their pockets picked. And why not? St. Paul officials figure they’re probably saving close to $100,000 in training and recruitment costs for each Mill City firefighter they can poach. “I can’t imagine that Minne-apolis is not looking at losing a significant number of firefighters. It’s a loss in terms of really good people,” Casper says. “I’m a little disappointed that something more dramatic couldn’t have been done to prevent this.”

So Daniel Casper will wait, vacillating between taking another teaching job or holding out hope that what Forte and Rybak told him will eventually come to pass. The rest of us, meanwhile, are left with hoping our luck holds out.

Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne magazine and editor of The Minneapolis Observer.

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