By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Over the last several years, Eagan had been growing at a fast clip. Yet even as the city experienced significant commercial growth and approached 70,000 residents, its Fire Department continued to follow a volunteer-based model.
The volunteer model was in line with 93% of the state’s departments, according to the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. However, it was no longer working for the growing city, which began making the big switch to a full-time Fire Department in 2017. 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.
In 2015, Eagan was making do with its department staffed only by volunteers, pushing through major challenges, including frequent turnover and unpredictable staffing, especially on weekends and holidays. Four years ago, its volunteer Fire Department was one of the largest in the state, with nearly 150 volunteers across six fire stations for Eagan’s 33 square miles.
“We had tremendous turnover,” says Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott, who began his career as a volunteer Eagan firefighter in the 1980s. “A volunteer model is a very inexpensive model. But when you have that turnover, there’s a cost there to train people.”
Scott got creative when it came to recruitment and retention, offering perks like letting single volunteer firefighters live in the firehouse rent-free to help speed up response time, which had fallen behind. Then came the Skyline fire.
The need for a new model
On a weekday evening in the spring of 2015, a home on Skyline Trail caught fire. By the time firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames. No one was hurt, but the home was declared a total loss. “It took us a long time to get there,” says Scott.
The first truck that arrived was filled with newly trained volunteer firefighters still building their skills. “The fire was the poster child for why a volunteer model from the 1960s wasn’t working for Eagan in 2015 anymore,” Scott says. “It’s not a predictable staffing model. We had to do something better, something different.”
Not long after at a fire station open house, resident Bill Pederson, who lives on Skyline Trail, and other nearby neighbors, approached Scott and told him they were disappointed with the department. It had failed the community, they said.
“Bill said, ‘Where are the paid firefighters?’ And I said, we don’t have any. He expected me to put up a fight saying, we did the best we could. But I said, you know what, you’re right, the current staffing model isn’t working.”
Pederson says the response time was not good. “The department did the best job with what they had at hand,” he says. “But this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. You take certain services for granted, like the fire department. You drive by, make the assumption they’re fully staffed, and keep going. I started thinking maybe this is something people shouldn’t take for granted.”
An outside perspective
Scott heard residents and he got to work to find a solution. The next best step, he decided, was to build a case for a fulltime staffing model. He wanted an objective, third party to conduct a study and began gathering funds as he researched consulting firm options. At the same time, Eagan only continued to grow. In 2016 the city celebrated the grand opening of its Central Park Commons, the largest Twin Cities retail center to open in the past two years.
“With the new commerce and expanding tax base, there was no reason not to have a full-time fire department here in Eagan with the new demands put on the community,” Pederson says. “The old model just wasn’t adequate anymore.”
In 2017, Scott hired the Californiabased Citygate Associates to study the Fire Department and its model and produce a comprehensive report. Two consultants flew to Eagan and spent time surveying the community with the city’s fire marshal. They looked at community risk and interviewed residents, including Pederson, plus a selection of the department’s firefighters.
“With a third of the city commercial and our high rises, they said, ‘you have a lot of risk,’” Scott says. Ultimately, the report confirmed the need for a full-time firefighting staff in Eagan.
With the study complete, Scott brought data and his proposal for a new model before City Council. “Getting volunteer firefighters had been getting more and more difficult, and the proposal was very well-received,” says City Administrator Dave Osberg. “The council was always very supportive of it.”
Yet, they asked Scott and Osberg tough questions, mainly how they would fund full-time positions at $95,499 for firefighters with salary and benefits and $113,191 for fire captains. A federal grant Scott secured allayed some concerns.
The city received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $871,111. That would cover the salaries and benefits of four full-time firefighters and a captain for two years.
“It was a test,” Scott says. “We set out to see, did it really make that big of a difference?”
The City Council adopted the staffing study in the summer of 2017, and Scott started hiring within existing city budgets. He also spoke with the department’s then 80 volunteers and gave them the option to stay on as part-time firefighters earning an hourly wage. All 80 initially stayed on.
The following year, in 2019, Scott applied for and received another SAFER grant of $3.4 million to cover 75% of the wages and benefits for 12 new firefighters plus six captains for two years, and then 35% for year three. He had 200 applicants for the 18 spots. The grant meant that all three of Eagan’s fire stations would be fully staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Now, the department has 36 full-time firefighters (who are also emergency medical technicians, or EMTs) working 24-hour shifts. Half are former Eagan volunteer firefighters. The department also currently has 19 part-time firefighters who are former volunteers. At any given time, 12 full-time firefighters are on duty and up to two part-time firefighters work evenings and weekends.
With the new model in place, response time — measured from the time of the 911 call to a fire engine arriving on scene — dropped from 14 minutes down to seven. Scott and his team also have the resources to inspect the city’s commercial buildings, which wasn’t possible before.
The department can now also send firefighters with EMT training to respond to 911 calls, along with private ambulances. In the past, police officers with only basic first aid training responded to 911 calls with ambulances.
“We can get there quicker than the ambulance most of the time,” says Scott. “There are numerous examples of life-saving events because of the quick response of our new EMT firefighters. We’ve also helped free up police officers so they can focus on police-related calls. They’re extremely happy.”
Reassuring the community
Once the grant money is spent, the fulltime model translates into an increase of $48 a year in property taxes for the average homeowner. “The grants helped us ease into it,” Osberg says.
In 2018, Scott was recognized as the 2018 Fire Officer of the Year by the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association for his work in transforming the city’s Fire Department.
“Thanks to the professionalism, patience, and continued perseverance of Chief Scott, the residents and businesses of Eagan are better served and protected now,” says Pederson. “It’s night and day. The coverage is so much better. Eagan is operating like a real municipality.”
Osberg says the new model is reassuring for the community. “It’s a collective comfort that we’re staffed 24-7,” he says, “that firefighters will be there on a moment’s notice.”
For other cities looking to switch to a full-time model, Osberg says to be patient and engage staff and council and the volunteer firefighters. “Be transparent,” he says. “We were always sharing what we were trying to do and the importance of it.”
Scott says cities feeling the effects of a declining volunteer staffing pool should create a fire department staffing road map for the future. “A different staffing model impacts so many other things within your city and fire department,” he says, and a road map, even if a change is years away, allows for better capital planning.
For example, he says, leaders should think about how many fire stations are needed (fewer are needed for a staffed model than a volunteer model, and possibly in different locations), the design of fire stations (design needs are different for a staffed model), and the type and amount of fire equipment needed.
“Plan now for potential future change,” Scott says. “Making an investment in a staffing and deployment study for the future is money well-spent for your community.”
Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.