By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Standing barefoot on icy asphalt while watching a house burn with everything she owned inside, Brittany Hood experienced a perspective only a victim can understand when firefighter response times are discussed.
“I was thinking, ‘That’s my life in there. That’s all I have,’” she said as she prepared to move out of a duplex she had been renting on Swiss Street for the past four months. “I never seen anything burn so quick. I was standing there watching my house burn to a crisp and it seemed like forever.”
Hood was moving the day after the Nov. 25 fire that spawned a new discussion about staffing and response times for Mankato’s Fire Department. The discussion started with an email from former Tourtellotte Park neighborhood resident Jason Smith to members of the Mankato City Council and Public Safety Director Todd Miller. It revealed the Department of Public Safety hasn’t been staffing its fire station on Madison Avenue as often as promised.
For the record, even though firefighters responded to the Swiss Street fire from the new Public Safety Center, the extra mile of travel didn’t put the Fire Department outside of its goal of arriving at a fire within 5 to 7 minutes, Miller said. Reports from the fire show the first volunteer was at the fire within a couple of minutes. A lieutenant and three additional firefighters were there within 5 minutes and the fire that burned the front of the house was knocked down within 15 minutes from the initial call.
But 15 minutes can seem like a lifetime to someone watching her house burn. Even neighbors, some of whom helped get Hood and her 2-year-old son, Colton, out of their basement apartment after the fire started, said it took longer than they expected for firefighters to arrive and start battling the blaze.
“The way those flames were going, we were saying, ‘Where in the heck is the fire department?’” said Dean Olson. His wife, Melissa, brought Hood a pair of shoes to wear as they watched the flames spread up the front of the duplex.
“It seemed like an awful long time. If they were at the Madison Avenue station, it wouldn’t have taken near as much time. The whole neighborhood was wondering ‘Where is the fire department?’”
Smith said his problem with the situation is that the city told Tourtellotte Park residents, who live below the bluff neighborhood accessed by Swiss Street, that the Madison Avenue station would remain staffed until a new station is built in the northeast corner of the city. Within hours after the fire at Hood’s house, Smith sent the email to remind City Council members of a promise to staff the Madison Avenue fire hall at night until a new station is built at the intersection of Augusta and Premiere drives. (See related story.)
Smith said he had learned the Madison Avenue station, formerly known as Fire Station 1 until the new Fire Station 1 opened recently at the downtown Public Safety Center, hasn’t always been staffed due to a shortage of manpower.
“In fact, more often than not, there is no one to staff former Station 1 and no trucks kept at this station because of it,” Smith said in his email. “It is basically closed for well over 50 percent of the evening hours that it is supposed to be staffed.”
In a public safety facilities study completed in 2010, Jeff Bengtson, deputy director for fire, found that Mankato had to have three fire stations to maintain its current ISO rating of 3. The rating is used, in part, by insurance providers to set insurance rates for structures in the city.
In addition to the new Fire Station 1 and the fire station on Madison Avenue, Fire Station 3 is on Pohl Road in south Mankato. The old Fire Station 2 on State Street has been used as a storage building for years. When the new station is built on Augusta Drive, it will become Fire Station 2.
When the decision was made to eventually close the Madison Avenue fire station, Miller said he would continue to staff the station at night and on weekends with volunteers and, when available, full-time firefighters. In a response to Smith’s email, Miller told the City Council staffing levels had only allowed him to staff the Madison Avenue station for five nights during most of November.
“I am very sensitive to Mr. Smith’s concerns about having three fire stations open and operational as this is what we believe is necessary not only for the safety of all citizens in Mankato but for our ISO rating as well,” Miller said. “Mr. Smith is correct that since we moved the main fire station to the new Public Safety Center early this month we have not been able to staff the Madison Avenue station every night.”
Miller explained that the Fire Department’s lieutenants were told to staff the Madison Avenue station whenever they have at least eight full-time and volunteer firefighters on duty who are trained and qualified to start an interior attack for a fire. That would allow the city to have at least three firefighters each at the new Fire Station 1 and Fire Station 3, and at least two firefighters at the Madison Avenue station.
“It’s as thin as we can effectively spread our resources across three stations,” Miller said in the email.
Fire Lt. Scott LeBrun said the Madison Avenue Station was staffed the night of Hood’s fire. However, the fire started before the firefighters arrived at 6 p.m. Miller also said a portion of Smith’s email was incorrect because at least one fire truck is always kept at each station.
Having one full-time firefighter on medical leave and the deer hunting season made staffing the three stations difficult in November, Miller said. Firefighters were allowed to take 21 total days of vacation time and the firefighters left were not qualified for an interior attack.
“We have had eight or nine firefighters on most nights in November; however, as many of these are new trainees, they are not yet fully ready to work on their own, thus the limited number of nights we have opened three stations to this point,” Miller said.
There were 10 volunteer firefighters recruited in 2012 who are reaching the end of their mentor training. Miller said he hopes to have them qualified by March.
He has also changed the department’s recruiting strategy for Fire Station 3, where volunteers receive housing in exchange for their service. Miller also is considering changing current volunteer requirements that allow those firefighters to stop staffing stations, and only respond from home, after two years of service. Under the new plan, all volunteers would be required to spend three nights per month at one of the city’s fire stations.
Smith said people living in the Tourtellotte Park neighborhood have known for awhile that the Fire Department wasn’t fulfilling its promise to keep the Madison Avenue station staffed. He said during a telephone interview that the fire at Hood’s house gave him an opportunity to let others know about the problem.
It worked. Councilman Jack Considine sent an email to Smith saying the staffing situation was a “legitimate public safety concern.” He also said the council is following the issue closely and he had discussed the matter with Councilman Mark Frost.
“Residents don’t know when the station is staffed or not staffed,” Smith said. “I thought it was about time this information gets out. What we got was a lot of excuses and no action.”
As a fire victim, Hood said it is a good thing that the Fire Department responded in time to keep the fire from spreading into the attic of the house. The day after the fire LeBrun said that could have happened within minutes and, if it did, the fire could have spread quickly through the house. Firefighters actually had to return the evening after the fire because it re-ignited in the attic, Hood said.
If the fire had started a few minutes later and if the fire had spread to the attic, Hood said firefighters could have been pulling two bodies out of her apartment. She realizes those are two big ifs in a firefighter’s world, where every second matters. But those are the ifs you think about when your feet are freezing, your house is burning, and everyone is waiting for help to arrive.
As it was, she and Colton were in her living room finishing dinner when neighbors started pounding on her windows to let her know the front of the house was on fire. So she grabbed her son and headed for a window, the only way out because the front door was burning. Without the warning, she would have been putting the dinner dishes in the sink and bringing her son into the bathroom for their nightly shower.
“We wouldn’t have heard a thing in the shower,” she said. “I hate to think about what could have happened.”