Shortly before 11 p.m. Jan. 15, 2014, a fiery explosion ripped through the Coin-Tainer Co.’s block-long manufacturing facility in Milaca.
As fire lit the January night sky, firefighters from four departments as close as Milaca and as far away as Onamia (22 miles north of Milaca) left the warm confines of their homes to fight the fire in 19-degree temperatures.
All were volunteers.
As of 2012, there were 1.1 million firefighters in the United States and 70 percent were volunteers, according to data provided by the Mound Fire Department.
“They don’t do it for the money,” said Greg Lerud, co-chief of the Milaca Fire Department. “They do it to give back to the community.”
But the demands of training, an increasing number of emergency calls, a desire to be involved in the busy world of family activities and a firefighter candidate pool that is increasingly more transient is making fire service less attractive to volunteers throughout Minnesota.
“We sit down with those interested in becoming firefighters and explain everything they are getting potentially getting into, from the initial training, to weekly training, to time away from their families,” said Michael Rademacher, chief of the Northeast Sherburne Fire Department. Rademacher oversees one of the newest fire departments in one of the three fastest growing townships in the state, Baldwin Township, located between Zimmerman and Princeton.
All firefighter candidates in Minnesota must complete state-mandated Firefighter I and Firefighter II courses, which take up more than 200 hours of a candidate’s time in the first two years, Rademacher said.
In Dayton, training goes one extra step: Firefighters must become emergency medical responder certified, Dayton Fire Chief Jason Mickelson said.
Firefighters have always needed to pass physical agility tests, but criminal background checks have become mandatory under state law. All firefighters must receive medical and hazmat training.
The Anoka County Fire Training Academy was founded in 2012 to give all departments a place to train.
“The public has an expectation when they call 911 that they’re getting the best possible people, so that’s why we have that process to make it tough to get on – because we want quality people,” said Doug Nelson, assistant fire chief with the Burnsville Fire Department and former 23-year firefighter with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department.
These time-consuming requirements can turn away potential firefighters, Mickelson said.
That time commitment concerns Loretto Fire Chief Jeff Leuer, who foresees an impending decline in volunteer firefighters.
“The mandated training that a firefighter needs to take and sustain is a lot of hours,” Leuer said. “I tell someone you need to commit at least eight hours a week for meeting, training and public events, and they say they just don’t have that.”
Leuer, like many of his colleagues, attributes those challenges to people’s time commitments.
“One area I see different today, as opposed to when I was a kid, is that you played most of your sporting events within 5 or so miles. Today parents are having to take the children to areas miles away and sometimes out of state to participate in sporting events and school events. This takes firefighters out of the area to respond to calls,” Leuer said.
Scott Anderson, fire chief in Maple Grove, has noticed that most new firefighters leave before five years of service. They encounter more family responsibilities, job changes and the desire to go back to school for advanced training and degrees.
Norwood Young America Fire Chief Steve Zumberge said recruiting firefighters is not as easy as it used to be.
“We used to have a waiting list. … Now we’re about to advertise,” Zumberge said.
An aging department also creates challenges, Zumberge said.
“It’s always in the back of your mind about losing people. We have seven or eight that could retire with 20 years in.”
John Wolff, fire chief in Chanhassen, noted about 50 percent of his community is transient, pulling people who could be valuable volunteer firefighters out of the community for most of the day.
With the exception of small, rural fire departments where many firefighters work in small towns, many other fire departments are struggling to recruit crews with members who are on board for fires in the daytime.
In Rockford, Fire Chief Ben Sanderson told the Rockford City Council recently that, due to schedules and conflicts, about half the current members show up on calls.
“We’re burning out the 15 people who can show up to calls as it is,” he said.
Rockford is considering adding a reserve team of 10 that would presumably result in an additional five members at a call. Albertville, St. Michael and Monticello have added similar programs.
Maple Grove’s Anderson grew up in a small town where the fire department responded to around three calls per week. The owner of a hardware store could post a sign on his door saying something like, “Gone to fire call. Be back soon.”
Those days are gone, Anderson noted.
Anderson has used creative efforts to recruit daytime firefighters. He has stopped at garage sales and asked about who is home during the day. He then knocks on doors and asks whether anyone there is interested in being a firefighter. Maple Grove firefighters also use classroom visits as a recruitment tool. They ask kids to talk with parents about becoming firefighters.
Rademacher, during the recruitment process with Northeast Sherburne, lets his firefighters know that family comes first and the department is comfortable giving its firefighters some leeway when it comes to family dynamics. Northeast Sherburne also organizes activities for the spouses of firefighters that bring the department closer as a “family,” Rademacher said.
In Milaca, the retention of firefighters is strong, officials said. There are three firefighters who have been on the department for about 20 years. Most have at least five years under their belts, said Lerud.
Excelsior Fire Chief Scott Gerber said the retention level is good within his department, as well.
“The great part is, it’s a trend you’ll see in many departments,” Gerber said.
Wolff said the majority of firefighters who join his Chanhassen department will make it about 10 years. “Some will make it 20,” he said.
Dayton’s Mickelson said once a new firefighter has signed on to serve the community, it is easier to retain them.
“Newer firefighters tend to be tech savvy, where older firefighters sometimes struggle to use items like laptops and iPads,” he said.
Some have joined fire departments and stayed on for years, even decades.
“I think most firefighters join to help others in their time of need, whether it be a fire or a health problem,” Mickelson said. “Most are joining to give something back to their communities.”
Jeff Hage can be reached at [email protected]
ECM editors Adam Gruenewald, Jessica Harper, Sue Van Cleaf, Jeff Hage, Theresa Malloy and Eric Hagen researched and wrote this three-part series on fire department issues.