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Mankato Improves Firefighter Recruitment and Retention

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

City of excellence award

Facing challenges in recruiting and retaining firefighters, the City of Mankato launched an innovative initiative in the 1990s to attract more firefighters to the fold — a resident firefighter program.

A handful of volunteer firefighters signed up to live rent-free in a dormstyle setting in one of the city’s fire stations in exchange for staffing the firehouse 10 nights a month. The program helped supplement the city’s full-time firefighters.

For years, the program hummed along. Firefighters, who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s, appreciated the savings they were able to bank by not paying lofty rents. They were happy to volunteer their time at the station.

But, eventually, firefighters grew tired of the small, cramped living space in the firehouse and the lack of privacy. Turnover in the department started to pick up, and soon, it was becoming a serious problem.

“People were getting on with their lives,” says Jeff Bengtson, Mankato’s associate director of Public Safety. They were getting married and starting families. “Many firefighters, though, said they’d still want to work a resident’s schedule and be connected to the department if they could have their own space.”

So, in 2017, the city decided to expand its live-in program to accommodate couples and families, helping to curb turnover and enhance recruitment and retention of its paid-on-call firefighters. The initiative was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2020 City of Excellence Award in the category of City Fire Department Staffing and Coverage.

Looking for land

Bengtson and city officials came up with the idea to build a series of townhomes for volunteers to live in on fire station property. The homes would be larger living spaces that could comfortably fit couples and families with multiple children. Paid-on-call firefighters would have the chance to live in the homes for free after agreeing to work 10 nights a month.

A firetruck and two fire people standing by it.
Mankato expanded its residential firefighter program by building townhomes next to one of the city’s fire stations. Photo courtesy City of Mankato.

The city’s two fire stations at the time, however, were located on land that wasn’t large enough to house multiple townhomes. So, the project came to a standstill.

Then, in 2013, Mankato started to expand. More people were moving into town from neighboring communities, and the city decided to conduct a study to evaluate whether it needed to add a third fire station to properly serve its residents.

Study results showed that an additional fire station was indeed needed. The city eventually found a piece of property that was large enough to fit a fire station plus several townhomes.

“It was a capital improvement project that needed council approval,” says Bengtson.

Bengtson and the city’s director of Public Safety sought bids from contractors before going before the City Council with their plan. The council unanimously approved the project. First, the city tackled the new fire station. Construction on that structure kicked off in 2014. Then, two years later, the townhouses were added.

Transition to new townhomes

The city built a single structure with three separate townhome units on the site of its newest fire station. Each townhome featured two bedrooms and one bath, a two-car garage, and a small plot of outdoor space. The total cost for the three townhomes was $461,000.

Officials decided that firefighters eligible to move into the townhomes would be ones who were already trained firefighters with the department. Firefighters would be responsible for paying their own utilities and for cleaning and maintaining their townhomes. At first, interest in the new homes was slow to take off.

“People were pretty well settled with their living arrangements at the time,” Bengtson says, “so we didn’t have very high demand initially.”

As word spread, however, and people’s living situations shifted, that quickly changed. Matt Goodrich was the first paid-on-call firefighter to move into one of the new townhomes with his wife and twin daughters. He and his wife had recently sold their home, and they had yet to find a larger house they liked that could accommodate their family.

The Goodrich family lived in the townhome for nine months before purchasing a new home. They put the money saved during that rent-free period toward the down payment on a four-bedroom house, which was an upgrade from their previous two-bedroom.

“It was a great experience,” Goodrich says. “Pages came in, and I was able to respond to them right away. I would definitely recommend it to other cities. It’s a great program for people that are wanting to upgrade their house.”

A popular program

All three of the city’s townhomes are now currently filled with a mix of couples and single firefighters. Live-in firefighters have provided nearly 10,000 hours of service over the last three years alone, and the city expects to recoup the cost of the construction by 2026.

Ambulance and EMTs.
The Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service now has a second location in Mankato, which has improved response times. Photo courtesy City of Mankato.

Paid-on-call firefighter Brandon Knish lived in the department’s dorm-style space for two years before moving into a townhome. Currently, the department still offers nine dorm spaces in one of the other two stations across town. Knish was drawn to the townhome initiative for the chance to save money while living in a nice home.

“Housing costs are through the roof here,” he says. “The deal was just too good to pass up, and at the moment, I have no intentions of leaving anytime soon.”

Knish estimates he’s saving anywhere from $1,200 to $1,400 a month on living costs. Another added benefit to living in the townhome is the proximity to the fire station — it’s easier to answer calls, and he can respond faster, he says.

For other cities, “having a townhouse offering like this would definitely get people to think about volunteering for the department,” Knish says.

Firefighters have tended to stay in the city’s townhomes for anywhere from eight to 26 months, though the city doesn’t restrict how long they can stay. Firefighters, however, are asked to sign a one-year lease commitment to start. Then, they go month-to-month. They’re also asked to give a month’s notice before moving out.

“We’d love for them to stay as long as it works for them,” says Bengtson.

The new townhome initiative has benefitted the community by putting more firefighters on-site who are able to respond to emergencies immediately, says Bengtson, and that has improved community safety.

“The response time is just moments with these firefighters,” he says. “It’s definitely helped with the number of firefighters we can get to a fire scene quickly.”

Additional improvements

Mankato further tweaked its staffing model after identifying a gap. The city found that the department’s lowest staffing levels were on weekend days. So, the city decided to add part-time firefighters to fill weekend daytime and holiday staffing needs by recruiting experienced firefighters from within a 100-mile radius of Mankato.

“We had a very good response,” Bengtson says.

Mankato Firefighter Andrew Warnke enjoys using the kitchen in his townhome with his fiancee Gabrielle Wiest. Photo courtesy City of Mankato.

The department ended up hiring 20 part-time firefighters who have experience in neighboring cities’ departments. That meant they came to Mankato ready to work. The city didn’t have to expend resources to train and equip the parttime firefighters, cutting down on costs. Part-time firefighters in Mankato earn $24.71 per hour and they also participate in a pension plan.

As a result of that initiative, weekend daytime staffing levels have improved from an average of 3.3 firefighters on duty to 6.5 firefighters on duty. Currently, the department has 18 full-time, 14 part-time, and 33 paid-on-call firefighters on staff.

At the same time, the city helped the Mayo Clinic Health System — the medical training provider for all Mankato Department of Public Safety personnel — to lease space from the city for a second, more central site for the Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service.

Because of this new site, the average emergency medical response time in downtown Mankato has improved by one minute. The city’s Insurance Services Offices rating was subsequently upgraded from a three to a two.

More townhomes to come

These changes have greatly enhanced Mankato’s public safety services, and the city plans to expand the townhome initiative. Bengtson hopes to eventually build additional homes to accommodate even more paid-oncall firefighters. With a second set of townhomes, Mankato would be able to have two paid-on-call firefighters on duty every night.

“We don’t have any immediate plans to build more homes,” he says, “but we’re hoping that will come true sooner rather than later.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.