Maplewood fire officials are in the middle of a staff transition that will leave their department staffed entirely by full-time workers, a change prompted largely because of an increasing number of emergency calls.
Michael Mondor, chief of emergency medical services in Maplewood, said discussions began three years ago on what the department could do to manage more calls. The result, to be implemented by the end of March, is a shift from 25 part-time and 18 full-time firefighters to a team of 27 full-time firefighters.
Ray Crawford, a Maplewood firefighter-paramedic and president of the local firefighters union, called it a “positive transition” because reliable staffing is good for the community.
“We’ll have regular partners … [so] we’ll be able to work more efficiently,” he said.
Officials said that a complete full-time staff addresses scheduling and training challenges. Three additional firefighters will be added to the schedule, with two working the peak-hour shifts from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Maplewood gets about 6,000 emergency calls per year, a number that’s projected to reach 9,000 calls by 2025.
Chris Parsons, head of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters, said it’s becoming common for smaller, suburban fire departments to expand their full-time work staff. Cottage Grove, Plymouth and Brooklyn Park are examples of departments that have already done so.
“Our mission has become more wide-ranging and thus there’s more of a demand on people’s time for training and also response,” he said.
Coupled with population growth, he said, the result is “the staffing changes that you’re finding in a lot of other departments.”
Over the past four years, Parsons said that his organization, which represents full-time firefighters in the state, has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of local firefighter unions. “And we’re looking at adding more,” he said.
A full-time model wasn’t the only option that Maplewood considered. The City Council assembled a citywide task force and hired Fitch and Associates, an emergency services consulting firm, to make recommendations on the best way to move the department into the future.
Senior staffers supported the final recommendation to adopt the full-time model.
“We continue to have recruitment and retention challenges in filling our shift schedules, and the demands of training and education continue to increase for all of our firefighters. And juggling those challenges can be sometimes difficult,” Mondor said.
He added that the difficulties with part-time employees often come with their additional family, personal and work responsibilities.
“That [makes it] challenging to create a reliable response when we don’t know what the schedule’s going to be a month in advance,” he said.
To fill three full-time equivalents in the department, it took 20 to 21 part-time employees, Mondor said. “We’re investing in the smaller employee pool that [will] … work more hours, more reliably and more sustainably into the future,” he said.
Since 2011, the department has hired 27 part-time firefighters; today, only six remain. Mondor said it costs around $10,000 to $15,000 to equip, recruit and retain a new employee. “When we have turnover like [this], it becomes … difficult financially to sustain,” he said.
Mondor said they hope to fill the positions with current part-time staffers.
“The service today is excellent, but we understand that the demands of the community are changing and we want to prepare for those and be ahead of the game … [so] that we can guarantee that we can have the daily staffing levels necessary to meet the demands of the community,” Mondor said.
Kelly Busche is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.