By Tad Simons
When someone’s house is on fire, or a loved one is having a heart attack, residents who call 911 expect firefighters and other first responders to arrive within five minutes, no matter what. Citizens don’t care how help arrives, only that it does arrive—as fast as possible.
In most Minnesota municipalities, the people responding to emergency fire-and-rescue calls aren’t full-time firefighters, however; they are trained volunteers. When their pagers go off, these volunteers drop whatever they are doing—church, soccer game, birthday party, Costco run—and rush to the scene as quickly as they can, usually stopping at the fire station to put on their gear and hop on the truck.
Volunteer firefighters in all but the largest Minnesota cities have been serving their communities this way for more than 100 years. But as cities grow, call volumes rise, budgets shrink, demographics shift, and volunteers age, many municipalities that can’t afford full-time personnel are looking for other ways to meet the demands of modern firefighting.
“The days of the volunteer firefighting model are numbered,” says Nyle Zikmund, executive director of the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association. “The job has gotten significantly more complex, and various economic and cultural trends— two-income households, long commutes, loss of manufacturing jobs, people moving—have made it difficult to recruit new volunteers. It’s not just a Minnesota problem, it’s a national problem.”
Enter the duty crew model
One increasingly popular solution is the so-called “duty crew” model, in which paid volunteers work assigned shifts rather than remain on-call all the time. In a typical duty crew arrangement, firefighters sign up for specific four- or eight-hour shifts, and work in “crews” of two or three. When a crew is on duty, it is their responsibility to respond to all minor incidents and many medical situations, relying on backup only when necessary.
There are many advantages to having duty crews for your city fire department. For one thing, it provides full-time coverage at a fraction of the cost of full-time firefighters. It also allows volunteers to work according to a predictable schedule, and can be adapted to meet a community’s specific emergency response needs.
Duty crews are more expensive than an all-volunteer force, but considerably less expensive than full-time firefighters.
Faster response times
Inver Grove Heights, a suburb with 35,000 residents, converted to a 24/7, three-person duty crew in January of 2016. A number of factors led to the decision to change, says Fire Chief Judy Thill, including the need for faster and more consistent response to emergencies.
“In 2015, we had about 1,300 calls, and our response time over the years had been averaging between seven-and-a-half and eight minutes,” says Thill. “Now we’re able to shave off well over two minutes.”
Thill says she pushed for duty crews to be proactive. “Besides considering a possible future volunteer shortage, we were also looking at staffing needs for a third station,” she explains. “Using the traditional response model, we would have had to hire 10 additional firefighters for the new station. The duty crew model eliminated the need to add that many more personnel.”
Duty crews enable her department to provide consistent, reliable service to the community, she says, and save the city about $1 million a year versus hiring full-time for the same number of personnel to work around the clock. Thill is one of five full-time employees in her department; the fire-and-rescue duties are handled by a network of 65 volunteers who are paid $13 an hour and are required to work a minimum of 24 hours a month on duty crew shifts, in addition to weekly training and call-backs for larger calls.
A stop-gap solution
Duty crews are not a permanent solution, Thill admits. “Duty crews will allow us to put off the need to hire full-time firefighters for a number of years,” she says. “It’s a band-aid. How long the band-aid will continue to stay on is the question.”
Tim O’Neill, fire chief for the City of Roseville (population 35,000), agrees that duty crews are effective—until they’re not. “I see duty crews as a stop-gap solution,” he says. “Duty crews worked well for us for a while. But then the world got busy, people got busy, call volumes rose, and we couldn’t keep up.”
The Roseville Fire Department responds to an average of 5,000 calls per year, or about 14 a day. It’s been running part-time duty crews since the 1970s, and went to 24/7 coverage in 2001, but started transitioning to a full-time force two years ago.
In many Minnesota cities, however, volunteering for the fire department is a tradition that goes back generations. Compared to other states, Minnesota has the fewest number of full-time firefighters per capita in the country, and the second-highest percentage of volunteer fire departments.
There are 781 fire departments in Minnesota, and the vast majority of them are still staffed by on-call volunteers who, according to a 2014 University of Minnesota study, collectively save the state an estimated $742 million per year. Only 17 fire departments in Minnesota have a full-time force, and 73 departments are a combination of full-time, on-call, and volunteer.
These latter departments—in communities that are growing, and where the annual call volume has nudged into the thousands—are where duty crews are most popular. In cities where the volunteer force is stressed, but the budget or desire to hire full-time firefighters doesn’t yet exist, duty crews offer a budget-conscious way to manage the pressure while still delivering quality service to the community.
Around the Twin Cities metro area, many communities—such as Stillwater, Brooklyn Park, Shakopee, Eagan, Burnsville, and Richfield—have full-time forces or have added full-time firefighters in recent years. Many others—such as Minnetonka, Excelsior, Hopkins, Eden Prairie, and Cottage Grove—continue to use duty crews, often relying on each other for backup.
In most cases, the chief and a few other support personnel are salaried employees, while the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by paid volunteers. One reason: full-time firefighters cost $80,000- 100,000 per year (when you include benefits), whereas paid volunteers cost $10-15 an hour.
Lack of traditional volunteers
Another factor affecting the traditional come-if-you-can volunteer model is the changing nature of everyday life. Fire departments everywhere are struggling with the challenge of recruiting and training new volunteers, as well as high turnover and drop-out rates.
“People are busier now. They have families, kids’ activities, jobs, long commutes, and don’t have time to volunteer,” says Roseville’s Chief O’Neill. “And even if they do want to volunteer, a lot of people underestimate the amount of time it takes and the level of commitment.”
One does not simply volunteer to put out fires, after all. It takes roughly 100 hours for a new recruit to get through basic training, and about 500 hours of training over the course of three or four years to train them into a fully operational team member.
Volunteer firefighters typically receive the same firefighting, rescue, and emergency medical services (EMS) training as full-time firefighters, and most duty crew models require them to spend a certain number of hours per month in the station, on-call, or in training.
Tailor to fit your city’s needs
To firefighters, duty crews mean a more predictable schedule and more equitable sharing of responsibilities; to the community, they mean someone is guaranteed to be available in case of an emergency.
The model is also flexible. Before going to full-time duty crews, in fact, most communities start with part-time crews to fill in gaps, usually on the weekend, when volunteers are scarce. Others scale the model to fit their needs in other ways.
For example, the Isanti Fire District— which serves over 15,000 residents in Isanti and the surrounding area—bought a few $12,000 cars instead of a new firetruck, and stocked them each with a medical bag since the majority of their calls are medical in nature. When volunteers are on duty, they use a fire district-owned car, which gives them the freedom to “work” from home, or wherever, as long as they don’t leave the coverage area during their shift, explains Fire Chief Al Jankovich.
The volunteer firefighters “like the cars because they don’t have to use their own vehicle,” says Jankovich, “and I like them because they are significantly more efficient. From initial buy-in to maintenance, operation, and liability, the cars are saving us time and money across the bottom line.”
Duty crews aren’t the solution for every community, but when implemented and managed correctly they can help ease the strain of a stressed department— for a while, at least. They also give fire chiefs some precious peace of mind.
“Duty crews get rid of most of the guesswork,” says Inver Grove Heights’ Chief Thill. “I like them because when I hear a call go out at night, I don’t have to worry whether someone is going to respond.” And neither do the people who live in her community.
Tad Simons is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.
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