Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel: The City Pages entrance interview

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We sat down with chief John Fruetel to talk about the future of the department.
John Fruetel is not walking into an easy situation.

As newly appointed Minneapolis fire chief, Fruetel is now the head of a department that has experienced dramatic budget cuts over the years, leaving many firefighters to question whether the city has their best interest in mind.

As we reported in our November 2010 cover story, "Man Down," the impact of budget cuts is substantial. Most notably, some rigs are commonly staffed with only three firefighters -- one fewer than the national standard for the safe minimum. As a result, firefighters spend more time at a fire, and are exposed to dangerous conditions for a longer period of time. The city also eliminated its mandatory minimum for daily staffing.

Fruetel says safety will be his highest priority as chief, and admits that a decrease in staffing has already led to more injuries.

"It's a lot more challenging than it used to be, and that's starting to be a little reflected in our injury rates to our firefighters," he told us. "We're starting to see an increase. As we have sort of trended downward in size of the department, injury rates to firefighters have started to trend upward a little bit."

The increase in injuries then goes on to aggravate another issue that has earned the department criticism: overtime pay. When Fruetel's predecessor, Alex Jackson, retired earlier this year, the department was facing criticism from the City Council for a $1 million overtime bill. Fruetel says the increase in injuries also translates to an increase in overtime.

The department has also undergone criticism for a program that tasks firefighters with boarding up buildings. Though it's designed to bring revenue to the department, it had lost $281,977 last fall -- 11 months after it began -- according to city data.

We sat down with Fruetel in his office to ask him about all of this. He says his goal is to begin growing the department back as soon as possible, and the department has already applied for the SAFER grant, a national funding program that could help rehire firefighters laid off last year.

The city will continue to task firefighters with citywide board-ups, even though the program lost more than $280,000 after its first year, according to city data.
How's it been going so far?

It's been an interesting first 10 weeks, to be honest with you. We've just been really busy. We've had a number of fires, and anytime you transition into a position, there's a lot of challenges, a lot of things you have to get yourself back up to speed on, even though I did work for the department as an assistant chief, and retired a couple years ago into emergency management. Things still change, even in a short time.

What's priority number one?

My priority has got to be safety. Safety of our firefighters, safety of the folks who live and work and enjoy the entertainment this city provides. That's always got to be number one. Beyond that, coming back here, our state and local government -- especially local government -- have certainly been impacted by the economic downturn, like so many folks have been impacted. And that impact has certainly created some challenges in terms of maintaining the staffing model that we presently have in Minneapolis. And that all relates back to budget and personnel and those costs. So you know, that's probably a second big challenge for me is to try to minimize the impact to this organization, that economic impact that we are all experiencing right now.

And how do you do that?

Quite frankly, we're probably going to have to get a little bit creative in how we staff. We're probably going to get a little creative in looking internally, if there's any additional revenue streams that can be generated to assist in meeting budget. We have, I think, at this point, have pretty much taken most of the fat out of the organization, out of the budget. We're all operating in very, very lean times right now.

Even in lean times, we need to get creative to rehire some of those folks and roll the department back just a little bit.

Is there, in Minneapolis right now, a minimum daily staffing statute?

No, there really isn't a minimum staffing. I know that it takes a certain number of people to keep all those apparatus open.

But it used to be 96.

Yeah. Personally, for me, I look at it a little differently. We have a little broader mission than most people think. We do provide fire watches at the Convention Center, for example. We do fire watches at the Target Center for events that have pyrotechnics.

So when we say, we have whatever number it might be to put people on fire trucks, there is still a broader daily mission which takes people to do. I would look at, for me personally, how many people per shift that I may need to effectively manage a daily operation. We have contractual issues of vacation, we have injuries, people who are, quite frankly, still in Afghanistan. So when you add in all of that, it's hard to put a number -- you need a larger number to cover the much broader areas.

So you're saying, you would need more than 96?

Yeah. That's 96 people on the fire trucks. Ultimately, every fire chief would like to have four on every apparatus, you know, four on every engine company, four on every truck company. We would like to do that, but you know, that's a goal that we try to achieve and work back to that. That's why I talk about growing the department back a little bit. But I think we need to take a really good look at just, you know, how big do we really need to be? What's our core mission and goals? And then size accordingly.

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