By Randy Petersen
ROCHESTER, Minn. — A proposed eight-step plan for reducing fire department response into northwest Rochester and diversifying staffing would take at least five years.
“In my opinion, we wouldn’t want to do it in less than five years,” Rochester Fire Chief Eric Kerska said of the proposal. “This is very complex.”
The plan would seek added leadership positions to create a new emergency medical services division, which would take some pressure off fully licensed firefighters while also seeking new career paths into the department.
Kerska said current estimates point to the three crews stationed at the South Broadway Avenue fire station being overwhelmed by emergency service calls as early as 2024 if a different model isn’t adopted.
The EMS division could help address the growing number of medical calls in the city’s core, which would allow one of the fire crews stationed downtown to move to northwest Rochester, if a sixth fire station is built.
Deputy Fire Chief Holly Mulholland said the department currently has a seven-minute response time to the area near Dakota Middle School, which is not ideal.
“That’s also an area where we anticipate growth,” she said of concerns about response time.
In addition to reducing response times in northwest Rochester and increasing capacity for downtown medical service calls, Kerska said the proposed plan would position the fire department to diversify its staff as other departments start scrambling to hire firefighters.
He said the Rochester department hasn’t felt a hiring pinch yet, in part thanks to a high school training program, but he said the population of potential recruits is shrinking, especially when it comes to firefighters who reflect the city’s growing diversity,
“The community wants us to look more like them,” he said. “We’ve heard that loud and clear.”
He said diversifying the department crews will take longer under past practices, but using EMS positions could open faster paths for new recruits.
Kerska told Rochester City Council members Monday that the combined plan is proposed to take incremental steps at a pace the elected officials are comfortable adopting.
He said each step moves toward achieving all three goals, but individual actions won’t be effective if halved steps are adopted.
At the same time, he said the anticipated financial benefit — saving $2.8 million on the creation of a northwest fire station — won’t be fully seen until all eight steps are completed.
Council members voiced a variety of support for the proposal, but final decisions won’t be made until budgeting for 2024 and 2025 starts later this year.
City Administrator Alison Zelms the first steps will likely be part of an overall budget recommendation, so the plan can’t be viewed without looking at the broader financial impacts.
“As you approach your budget, you will be seeing lots of great ideas,” she said. “What did not get said here is how long it takes is really based on your threshold for adjusting the tax levy.”
Council President Brooke Carlson said the plan’s flexibility helps address the budget concerns.
“I appreciate that it’s an eight-step program that we can think about over eight years or however long, so we can be incremental on what we put toward it,” she said.
The eight steps outlined in the Rochester Fire Department’s plan to address Northwest Rochester response time, increasing medical service calls and a desire to diversify the department are:
- Add an assistant chief to focus on community interaction and development of the operations division.
- Add a supervisor position to help implement, run and oversee the new Emergency Medical Services Division.
- Add three emergency medical technicians to begin responding to EMS and lift assist incidents.
- Purchase land for a northwest fire station.
- Add seven EMTs and a supervisor to bring the EMS Division up to the level where it adds enough capacity to relocate a fire engine from Fire Station 1 downtown to the northwest.
- Add three battalion chiefs to expand professional development and provide the leadership capacity required to expand the EMS Division and open a northwest fire station.
- Build Fire Station 6 in the northwest.
- Relocate an engine and its crew from Fire Station 1 to the new northwest Fire Station 6.
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