This article won a first place award from the International Association of Firefighters, U.S. and Canada, in 2005 ~ web.ed.
Anti-Tax Politicians Risk the Lives of St. Paul Firefighters
by DAVID RUBENSTEIN
St. Paul mayor Randy Kelly has run into trouble with a popular group these days, the St. Paul firefighters. Their union has called attention to some disturbing facts: There are fewer firefighters in St. Paul today than there were on September 11, 2001. Stations are chronically understaffed. Much of the equipment is marginal, and in some cases falling apart.
See also "Inside the Beast" by David Rubenstein.
are rolling the dice [with the public’s safety] every day,” says Dick
Leitner, president of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21.
The firefighter problem for Kelly is really bigger than Kelly. A version of it
is happening nationally, as well as locally in cities all over the country.
In a nutshell, the prevailing conservative line about public safety and the threat
of terrorism has collided head-on with the prevailing conservative line about
taxes, i.e. that they just can’t be low enough.
In a head-on collision the vehicle with the most mass comes out ahead, and today
no political idea movement has more mass than the movement to lower taxes and
starve the public sector, whether you’re talking about schools, playgrounds
or public safety and the lives of first responders. Never mind victory gardens
and the rationing of paper. Today’s Republicans have a more beautiful idea.
Even homeland defense pales before the deep need of rich people to “keep
their own money.”
But to understand why a lot of firefighters aren’t happy with Kelly, you
need to look beyond Republican economic theories. Plenty of firefighters are staunch
Republicans, although probably fewer today than a year ago. Virtually all firefighters,
however, would agree that their business has changed dramatically, and that public
perception and material support has not kept up with those changes.
first big change in firefighting began 20 or 30 years ago, “when the age
of plastic set in,” according to Don Beckering, Hopkins fire chief and
director of public safety education for the Minnesota state colleges and universities.
“When natural wood burns,” he explains, “the amount of heat
produced is usually in the neighborhood of five to six hundred BTUs per pound
of fuel. Nowadays with plastics, you can get into the neighborhood of 30 to
40 thousand BTUs per pound.”
That means ceiling temperatures even in a house fire can reach 1,500 or even
2,000 degrees in minutes. In the old days it would take an hour or more. When
ceiling temperatures get high enough, gases liberated by the first stage of
a fire ignite. Technically it’s called “flash-over.” In lay
terms, it’s an inferno. Everything in the room ignites and even firefighters
with protective gear are in danger.
“That’s just talking fuel load,” Beckering says. “Fires
are also far more toxic now, with the chlorine, the phosgenes, all the different
gases that are given off during a burn.”
Plastics and other petrochemicals are everywhere, from carpets to plumbing,
counter tops to treated lumber, not to mention the chemicals in transport as
well as in storage. “Whether you’re in a suburb or downtown, it’s
hard to find a manufacturing process that doesn’t require some kind of
dangerous chemical,” according to Beckering. “ I’d say it’s
Opinions differ on whether the planet and its inhabitants got better or worse
off since a Los Angeles business man uttered the word “plastics”
as his single word of advice in the famous 1967 movie “The Graduate.”
But there is no doubt things became a lot more complicated for firefighters,
and more dangerous.
Then about three years ago, with the 9/11 attacks, the business of firefighting
was shaken up again.
“Before that,” Beckering says, “if a building blew up, we
would start looking at things like natural gas leaks. Now we have to wonder,
was this a building someone could have a vendetta against? At events, we never
worried about explosives per se. Now we have to train to recognize secondary
devices. Dirty bombs. Things that were not even part of the vocabulary even
five or six years ago.”
A secondary device is one that is designed to hurt, maim, or kill first responders.
“Yes, it has really changed a lot in the past few years,” Beckering
Two in/Two out
A few weeks ago, on Sept. 11, union firefighters rallied in front of the University
Avenue fire station that formerly housed Engine 20, which the mayor is closing
down. (“Engine 20” is the name of a firefighting company, as well
as the name of a rig. The same station also houses Ladder 20, a separate company
organized around a ladder truck. It remains open.)
demonstration was to call attention to shortstaffing, make a case for Engine
20 to stay, and to support a property tax increase the union said would cost
the average St. Paul homeowner about $10.00. It would be the first increase
in 11 years.
The St. Paul city council had approved it, partly to restore cutbacks in recreation
center hours and partly to address needs in the fire department. Mayor Kelly
had vetoed the measure. Now the firefighters were pressing some on-the-fence
council members to vote for an override. (It didn’t happen.)
How often fire companies get staffed with three instead of four is a big issue
for firefighters. Understaffing a fire company is not like understaffing a newspaper
or a restaurant. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something
about firefighting and why departments nationwide have adopted the “two
in/two out” rule.
“Going into a fire is like walking into an oven with your eyes closed,”
says Mark O’Dell, a firefighter at Station 8 in downtown St. Paul. “It’s
something you can’t believe. Hollywood doesn’t do it justice.”
[See sidebar, “Inside the Beast”]
Most of the time you can’t see, and you can’t breathe without self-contained
breathing apparatus nominally rated at 30 minutes but in fact good for about
20 minutes of hard work under stress. Falling and getting burned are obvious
concerns. But the more immediate one, which can easily lead to the others, is
getting lost. Working blind, the hose is your road back out, and the wall is
your friend. But nothing is more important than your partner, and having people
outside ready to come in after you.
Recognizing that fact, the federal government established a limited “two-in/two-out”
rule in 1998. It was adopted in many states, including Minnesota, and in other
states it became the de facto standard, in part to avoid liability in lawsuits.
It’s also the standard of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
“Two in/two out” says that in a full-blown fire, firefighting and
rescue should be done in teams of two and that a minimum of two additional trained
and equipped firefighters have to be positioned outside, in contact with the
first two and ready to go in for a rescue.
Understaffing fire companies has become an issue in older cities nationwide,
as they are forced to deal with the reverse trickle-down effect of the anti-tax,
anti-government policies now epicentered in Washington, and amplified in Republican-dominated
states like Minnesota. Typically the cash-strapped cities resist adequate fire
company staffing, then try to cover themselves by suggesting that firefighter
demands are just an attempt at union featherbedding.
exactly what occurred in St. Paul. After the Sept. 11 demonstration, the mayor’s
office insisted everything is cool and enlisted the Pioneer Press editorial
page to be its mouthpiece.
On Sept. 16, the paper ran an editorial accusing the union of “bad taste”
for demonstrating on Sept. 11. Then it claimed the number of companies that
were understaffed with three firefighters on any given day was “only”
three out of 26.
According to Leitner, the union president, the average was more like seven.
On some days, he said, a dozen or more companies are short-staffed.
An independent examination of staffing report numbers provided by the St. Paul
fire department found that Leitner’s figures are correct. The average
number of stations understaffed on any given day in September was 7.1. On three
days, a dozen or more stations were down.
The Pioneer Press editorial also managed to hit some familiar anti-union hot
buttons, praising Mayor Kelly for saving over a million dollars by insisting
that training should be done during a firefighter’s regular shift instead
of on overtime.
“They made it sound like it was our idea, like we were feeding off the
trough,” O’Dell says.
What the editorial didn’t point out is that staffing reports are compiled
at the beginning of a shift, and that under Kelly’s plan firefighters
are being sent out for training after they have been counted as being ready
to fight fires.
“The argument is you are in service. But the emergency medical training
is out on Suburban and White Bear Avenue,” Leitner says. “This is
how you can really run into a domino effect of companies having to cover for
According to Leitner, if you count the firefighters who are not present because
they are at training, there are times when as many as 20 companies could be
running with three- instead of four-person crews.
“The last work day we were out at training,” O’Dell says,
“there were two medic rigs and three fire companies. That’s five
companies out of service, for four hours at a pop.”
two-in/two out rule means that if a company of three arrives, it cannot enter
the fire (barring exceptions, like when people are known to be inside) until
a second company arrives. “Usually,” Leitner says, “there
isn’t much delay between the first arriving company and the second. But
if seven, 12, 15 companies out of 26 are at three, you can see how it snowballs.”
Even small delays in firefighting can have big consequences. Fires grow exponentially;
the conservative rule of thumb is that the size of a house fire doubles approximately
every minute. Firefighters like to say that what happens in the first 20 minutes
determines what will happen in the next 20 hours.
A third claim made in the Pioneer Press editorial was attributed to chief Doug
Holton: that Ladder 20, which remains at the University and Vandalia station,
has the same capability as Engine 20 that was closed down.
The union disputes that, pointing out that engines and ladders have different
capabilities, as do the companies based around them. The ladder company does
forcible entry, ventilation (like cutting holes in the roof to give smoke and
heat a way out), and search and rescue. The engine company, as O’Dell
says, “pulls hose, finds the seat of the fire, and sprays water.”
Engines can do things ladders can’t. They carry more water. More tellingly,
according to O’Dell, they are equipped with hoses that can go far deeper
into a building. He says there already have been fires in the University and
Vandalia area where the ladder pulled up, couldn’t reach the fire, and
had to wait for an engine.
When asked where the Pioneer Press got its staffing numbers, editorial page
editor Art Coulson said, “We talked to the chief. We talked to the mayor’s
office. A bunch of people.”
Kelly’s deputy mayor Dennis Flaherty declined to answer when asked if
he knows where the numbers came from. Instead he emailed back a generic PR statement,
claiming St. Paul has the best fire service “in the State and in fact
the region” and a mayor who “continues to ensure that the safety
of our citizens is his top priority.”
A phone call to Chief Holton wasn’t returned.
to Leitner, St. Paul fire equipment has been deteriorating for years. Some of
the reserve vehicles – backup rigs that are brought into service when
a vehicle is in for repairs – are legendary. One can barely hold at five
miles an hour going up a steep hill.
“Some rigs are literally rusted out from their own boxes,” he says.
“The mechanics are telling us there is not any place left to weld on the
frame any more.”
Mike McVay, “mechanic slash supervisor,” works deep in the bowels
of the city’s fire and police maintenance facility where he has been employed
for 18 years. He backs Leitner on the essentials.
“There are trucks out there that are scary right now,” he says.
“Engine 18. Engine 1, an ‘87 model. It’s in the salt all the
time. It’s rotten and it looks like hell.”
Yes, he says, on some frames there is nothing left to weld to. “You can
stick a ballpoint pen through the frame rail.”
It’s not a safety factor yet, he says, “because the location of
the corrosion is ahead of the spring mounting. But you know it’s not good.
It’s gone way longer than it ought to.”
Chronic lack of funding and delayed replacement has been a double whammy for
maintenance. “With budget cuts we have like a third less people than we
used to have, and twice the vehicles to maintain,” McVay says.
Some recent replacement decisions are setting the city up for further problems,
according to McVay. For example, to try to cut costs the city has ordered a
new ladder truck with a steel instead of an aluminum ladder. All that weight
high in the air sets up a mini-cascade of engineering problems, like a need
for rollover bars and wider jack spread. Plus, McVay says, it will have to be
continuously maintained and painted.
It’s clear from talking to McVay that taxpayers 20 years from now won’t
only be paying off the bonds that Republicans want government to survive on.
They also will be footing the bill for a generation of disinvestment in areas
many people don’t even know exist.
Strong Mayor System
The Sept. 16 Pioneer Press editorial derides “the union and its cohorts
on the city council.” That would refer to, among others, Jay Benanav,
the Ward 4 council member who came within a few hundred votes of beating Kelly
in the 2001 mayor race.
Benanav sees it, Kelly’s recent machinations are part of a power grab
fueled in part by an ideological position on taxes that is unsustainable once
the light of day is allowed to shine on the wreckage it creates.
In other words, Kelly doesn’t want the people in operations talking about
how things are falling apart. Department heads were forbidden to provide testimony
or even talk or e-mail council members during the crucial early budget period
in January of this year, according to Benanav.
When asked to comment, Flaherty reverts again to PR-speak.
The mayor and city department directors respond “to any and all requests
for information from city council members on a regular and timely basis,”
Pressure to keep problems from public scrutiny goes beyond department heads,
according to Benanav.
“There was one incident where a firefighter, a union officer I believe,
met with me because they were concerned about what was going on,” he says.
“He was spotted talking to me, and the mayor’s office ordered the
fire chief to suspend him. To make a long story short, they backed off. But
he was going to be suspended without pay for a day, because he met with me.”
Flaherty declined to comment.
On the national front, since 9/11, local fire department staffing and equipment
problems have emerged as part of a more general failure to back up swagger and
political posturing about “homeland defense” with money. October’s
Mother Jones magazine published a chart that compared the amount of money being
provided for homeland security needs with the amount supposedly needed, as calculated
by a variety of sources including the American Transportation Association, the
Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. Coast Guard.
firefighters should be getting $36.8 billion, according to those calculations.
The Bush 2005 budget at the time called for $500 million – roughly the
amount the war in Iraq is costing every 40 hours, the Mother Jones chart points
Another take on the figures is provided by Minnesota’s Fifth District
Congressman Martin Sabo (DFL), ranking minority member of the Homeland Security
Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. The recently passed Homeland
Security Funding Bill cuts first responder funds by $382 million compared to
last year, according to Sabo, and President Bush wanted it cut even more.
“The Republicans’ funding levels for homeland security hardly match
their rhetoric,” Sabo says. “We repeatedly hear warnings of imminent
terrorist attacks in our country. Yet with this bill, we are moving backward
in some troubling ways.”
When Sabo and DFL Fourth District Congresswoman Betty McCollum sponsored a homeland
security roundtable in August, for local officials who would be seeking money
for programs, the St. Paul fire department was conspicuously absent.
In September, during a city council meeting, Benanav asked Chief Holton why.
Holten replied that he was ordered by “his superior” not to attend.
Further inquiries, he said, should be directed to deputy mayor Dennis Flaherty.
(Flaherty declined to comment.)
McCollum later sent the mayor a letter bemoaning the fact no one from the St.
Paul department showed up at a meeting that included representatives from Minneapolis,
several counties including Ramsey, and some hospitals. In her letter, she didn’t
fail to underscore the irony of the city’s excuse – that people
were busy preparing for a campaign visit from George Bush. (Kelly, a former
Democrat, endorsed Bush for president on Aug. 1.)
To understand the deterioration of St. Paul’s city services you need
to go back to 2001, according to John Sundvor, spokesman for the lobbying firm
Flaherty & Hood, which represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“The legislature insisted on spending about a billion dollars, a little
less, on property tax relief statewide,” he says. “A good chunk
of that relief went to the ‘high-value suburbs.”
singles out Steve Sviggum and then-House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty as key
proponents. But the effort was led, he says, by Republican state representative
Ron Abrams. (His district 43A in Minnetonka has an average household income
of $96,800 and is 90 percent white.)
“Well,” Sundvor continues, “in 2003 they found they were $4.5
billion in the hole. So they start casting about and saying, ‘We need
some money to fix this.’ What they did is cut local government aid by
Rural Minnesota, Minneapolis, St. Paul and the less prosperous suburbs were
the big losers, according to Sundvor, and it affected funding across the board,
including public safety.
“We had cities that left public safety positions either unfilled or laid
some people off,” he says, “Some scaled them back permanently. We
had cities that put off making their scheduled capital expenditures. We had
cities that spent down their budget reserves. Others that did a combination
of all of those things, then cut other services as well, and then increased
their property taxes.”
Stonewalling by the mayor’s office and the chief during the preparation
of this article apparently extended even to news that could make them look good.
According to some of the firefighters, starting this month there was an increase
in overtime and a decrease in the frequency of three-person shifts. Maybe criticism
of the ham-handed Pioneer Press editorial had some effect. But given budget
realities, good news for firefighters does not bode well for other city needs
like playgrounds, schools, or the hundreds of marked, diseased and contagious
elms that line St. Paul streets because “operations” lacks the funds
to cut them down.
How close to the edge is the St. Paul Fire Department?
depends on where you think the edge is. Maybe the terror threat is a shuck.
Maybe Mark Dayton was a flake for closing down his office. Maybe the fact the
United States under George Bush has become, hands-down, the most despised nation
on the planet will never be reflected in a devastating 21st century attack on
our own soil. With intelligence services themselves in disarray, pressured and
exploited by politicians and still in recovery from two generations of cold
war obsession, it’s hard to know.
What is clear is that the St. Paul fire department is only marginally staffed
and equipped for the world that existed on Sept. 10, 2001. If half of what official
doctrine says about the world since then is true, today it isn’t even