By Dan Nienaber
The Free Press
MANKATO — Finding people willing to live at a fire station and devote 10 days a month to being ready to roll whenever volunteer firefighters are needed can be a challenging task for Mankato’s Department of Public Safety.
Single men and women have been fulfilling that duty for years at the city’s Fire Station 3, where volunteers exchange their services for dorm-style housing. That living arrangement works for younger volunteers, but it loses its popularity as people get older. It’s not even an option for married volunteers.
Todd Miller, Department of Public Safety director, said the Fire Department has found a new way to entice people considering service as a volunteer firefighter. When the new Fire Station 3 is built along Augusta Drive near the residential neighborhood north of Home Depot, four townhouses will be built next to it.
Volunteers will be given the option to live in the townhouses at a reduced rent in exchange for an obligation to staff the neighboring fire station 10 to 15 nights per week. Miller said there is already interest in the townhouses, which will be owned by the city, coming from current volunteers. It’s not a new idea, but it’s not a common method for recruiting volunteers. He’s not aware of anything similar in Minnesota.
“I’m not sure where we came up with it,” Miller said. “Staffing is an issue everywhere and we’ve talked to people around the country.”
Volunteer firefighters would live in the townhouses, responding to fire calls directly from home. The fire station will be right across the street, so they won’t have to stay at the station and away from their families while they are working their overnight shifts.
Miller used Deputy Director Jeff Bengtson as an example of how the townhouses can be an asset for the city. Bengtson, who now leads the fire side of the Department of Public Safety, started his firefighting career by volunteering and living in Fire Station 3 on Pohl Road. He eventually moved out, became a full-time firefighter and started a family.
Other good volunteer firefighters are being lost, though, because they want to go into other careers. They might be willing to stick with the department longer if they can still have a place to live while they start those careers and their families.
“For a long time our resident volunteers have all been single,” Miller said. “We said ‘Let’s provide an opportunity to stay with the department after you’re married or want to get out of that type of living situation.”
The original plan was to build the new Fire Station 2 at the same time the new downtown Public Safety Center and Fire Station 1 were being built. Miller said a decision was made later to delay the new Fire Station 2 project until the much large downtown project was completed. Staff input was, and is, a requirement for both projects, which translates into hours of research, analysis and meetings.
“I don’t think we were prepared to take on two major building projects at one time,” Miller said. “I didn’t want to stretch the staff too thin.”
Bengtson said finding and keeping enough volunteers to provide the staff needed for three fire stations will be required if the city wants to maintain its current ISO rating of 3.
The rating is used to set insurance rates for structures in the city. A Madison Avenue fire station that will be closed after the new one is built is being used to fulfill that requirement now, but that station has been left empty many nights because there aren’t enough volunteers to staff it.
One thing that makes the staffing task difficult is it’s more important to have fire stations staffed at night than during the day, Bengtson said. Fires are just as likely to start during the day as during the night. However, people are more likely to smell or see smoke and call 911 when they’re awake and it’s not dark outside. So potential fires are often stopped quickly.
“We try to target our resources to night hours when risks are higher,” Bengtson said.
Full studies are done about once every decade to set a city’s ISO rating. Ratings are set based on a variety of criteria, including staffing, equipment, the location of fire hydrants and water availability in general. Bengtson said the city has arranged to have its next full ISO study completed after the new station is built.