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City panel backs hiring more firefighters

The Willmar Fire Department is finding it crucial to add personnel and build their experience. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Fire Chief Gary Hendrickson has received support from the City Council's Labor Relations Committee to hire more paid on-call firefighters.

If the full council approves the committee's recommendation at the Sept. 3 meeting, the current maximum roster will increase from 35 to 40. The department currently has 32 active firefighters now and 1 on a leave of absence.

The starting wage is $11 an hour, increasing to $14.30 per hour. Firefighters also receive a retirement plan.

Under the paid on-call system, firefighters who are available respond to fire calls. They may be called from their place of employment or from home.

In an interview, Hendrickson said he it's good that the committee supports his request.

"It takes more firefighters to maintain the same level of service that we provide the community today, just based upon availability of firefighters and things that people have going on in their families,'' he said.

Hendrickson said the department is generally the third priority for firefighters, coming behind family and their employment. The situation prevents the department from maintaining a predictable level of daily staffing.

"As we look to the future, we anticipate the retirement of up to 7 firefighters by the year 2016. Therefore it will be crucial to add personnel and build their experience by taking advantage of the institutional knowledge of those looking to retire,'' according to Hendrickson.

Also, he said demographics and the transient nature of society make recruiting and retaining good firefighters difficult. He said statistics show 1 of every 4 firefighters does not finish their first year.

On average, after the second year, the current turnover rate is at 50 percent. In order to assure the community receives and maintains the current level of service, he said the department will require more firefighters than in the past.

In addition, Hendrickson will be implementing a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, which would in turn reduce the number of firefighters available on any given day.

The initial cost of hiring a paid on-call firefighter along with the first year of training is approximately $3,600. The cost includes a medical examination, psychological exam, Firefighter I and II training, EMS training and Minnesota Fire Service Certification Board costs.

"You can't just take someone off the street and say, Go, now you're a firefighter,'' he said.

The increased 2014 budget requests for training and subsistence of persons reflects the annual costs of the larger roster, he said.

"We put a fair amount of money into the folks on the first year. But then you just never know what's going to happen,'' he said. Society has changed from civic duty and helping the community to what's in it for the individual rather than the community, he said.

The department has been advertising for applicants since June. As of today, Hendrickson has 6 applicants. The application deadline is Sept. 13. The hiring process will take until the end of December with classes anticipated to start in January.

Willmar's average response time, which Hendrickson said is good, has steadily increased from 4 minutes and 13 seconds in 2006 to 4 minutes and 55 seconds in 2012. Average response time is the time when the initial fire truck is out the station door.

Response time is a concern because fire doubles in size every 18 seconds due to all of the man-made products used today compared with natural fibers used in the past, said Hendrickson. If the fire department had more firefighters, the response time could be reduced, he said.

"The bigger pool you can pull from, the likelihood of more people showing up, so some might get here quicker,'' he said. "If you have the lesser amount, then that likelihood of enroute time to the station is lengthier.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150