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Minnesota fire departments transition to full-time staff to address worker shortage

The Bloomington Fire Department once had 155 firefighters on staff. Now they have less than 100.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — There's a big problem in firefighting right now, not enough people, or at least, not enough volunteers.

Countless fire departments across the country rely on volunteer firefighters who are on-call and only get paid when the emergency calls come in.

This model is common in small cities and towns, because it’s more affordable to pay someone part-time, and the call volume can usually be managed by a part-time crew.

This model has been used for decades, but a growing number of fire departments nationwide are now transitioning to full-time staff, because they can’t find enough volunteers.

“The numbers are considerably down for us,” Bloomington Fire Chief Ulie Seal says.

Back in the early 2000’s the Bloomington Fire Department had a staff of around 155 volunteer on-call firefighters. Chief Seal says that number has gone down significantly in recent years.

“Right now, we have 99 firefighters. Eight of them are full-time and seven are also career fire chiefs,” Seal says.

The department is now looking to hire 18 full-time firefighters to address this shortage and they’re using federal funding to help them get started.

The Bloomington Fire Department recently received $6.2 million from the federal government’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program (SAFER). The program was created to help fire departments hire more full-time firefighters.

Chief Seal says several departments across the Twin Cities metro also applied for the grant money, including the Hopkins Fire Department.

"We're all kind of having the same problem,” Hopkins Fire Chief Dale Specken says. “Years ago, we would put applications out and we would get anywhere between 50 and 60 applicants. This last go around we had nine of them.”

Specken's also a board member with the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association. He says this isn’t just a problem in the Twin Cities metro, but nearly every department in Minnesota is struggling to find firefighters.

"You're starting to see a lot of departments shift away from volunteers,” Specken says. “So many departments are shifting to more full-time staff.”

Many other fire departments across the country are in the same situation.

According to a 2020 survey from the National Fire Protection Association, 65% of the nation's firefighters are volunteers, around 677,000 of them.

That number's 6% lower than it was in 2019, and many chiefs believe that drop has only gotten worse since the pandemic.

“It has really escalated in recent years,” Chief Seal says.

It's why many departments are shifting to full time as fast as they can, and why many chiefs are worried.

"Because I'm struggling to get enough people to handle the small house fire. I still get trucks showing up with one or two people on it and then I'm plugging chiefs in or bringing crews together to make a crew, to be effective on that small house fire,” Chief Seal says.

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