Fire Chief Andrew Slama leaves lasting impact as Savage transitions to 24/7

Round the clock fire station coverage officially began in Savage this week as the Savage Fire Department’s staffing model change took full effect on July 1.

This month will also mark the departure of Fire Chief Andrew Slama, who’s credited with leading the department through critical changes during his tenure.

Slama will begin a new chapter this summer leading the Edina Fire Department.

“I’ve never been so mad and yet so happy for a person in my life,” Savage Fire Captain John Burrow joked. “You definitely don’t want to see him go, but you can’t be mad at the guy for taking the opportunity that’s been given to him — he definitely earned it.”

Slama joined the Savage Fire Department in 2008 after working as a firefighter in Mankato and a firefighter and paramedic with the Edina Fire Department and Mdewakanton Emergency Services.

In Savage, Slama was promoted to deputy fire chief in 2018 after serving three years as captain.

He became the city’s fire chief in October 2019 after two stints serving as interim chief during the year; once following the retirement of former Chief Joel McColl and again following the resignation of former Chief Andrain Roach.

A growing need

As chief, Slama advocated for changes to the fire department’s staffing model aimed at easing the strain on firefighters and creating a more reliable emergency response for residents.

Under the former paid-on-call model, the city’s volunteer firefighters carried a pager and responded to the fire station when available.

Firefighters say the system created a gamble on how many firefighters would be available at any given moment — it also heightened demands on department personnel, who were called en masse to every incident no matter the severity.

Yet, whether or not enough responders would show up remained a top concern for the department’s strained resources. Over the decades, the department hadn’t grown alongside the city it serves.

Last summer, amid a sharp increase in medical calls related to the pandemic, the department had 31 active firefighters on the roster — four less than it had in 1965.

During that time, Slama sat down with the city’s elected officials and offered a road map for investing in a more modernized, sustainable system. With support from the Savage City Council, changes have been rolling out ever since.

24/7 coverage

The new model, in full effect July 1, allows the department to provide around-the-clock station coverage seven days a week without transitioning completely to a career model where all members work full-time.

Instead, the station is staffed with a hybrid of full-time and part-time firefighters. Full-time personnel work 24-hour shifts at the O’Connell Road fire station.

The rest of the roster transitioned from a paid-on-call to a part-time firefighter; these firefighters sign-up for shifts, but everyone might still be called to the station on occasion for larger incidents.

Slama said the new model ensures better response times and helps firefighters balance their personal lives, but it’s not perfect.

“There’s going to be failures within the system that we have to try to stay ahead of,” he said.

Recruitment continues to challenge the Savage Fire Department and other fire departments across the state. Today, there are roughly 36 department members with five firefighters stepping down or taking a leave of absence in recent months.

Slama said it’s hard to lose good staff, but it’s also important to create a culture where members feel supported throughout their decisions within the fire service.

“He definitely wants the best for our community and the citizens within Savage so that’s a top priority,” said Burrow, the station captain.

Firefighter Kyle Jacket said Slama’s impact stretches beyond the staffing model changes. He also leaves behind a culture of approachability and mentorship.

Jacket said Slama always had time to sit down with firefighters, seek feedback and provide mentorship to those beginning their careers — something that never went unnoticed among the ranks.

“There’s a fear of the unknown with him leaving, but he’s set us up for success,” Jacket said.

As he transitions to face new challenges in Edina, Slama will continue residing in the Savage community with his wife, Hillary, and their two children, Oliver and Madelyn.

“I have so much passion and love for this fire department,” he said, adding he’s exciting to continue watching the fire department grow into the future. “My family depends on this fire department as well.”

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