White Drive fire 3.jpg (copy)

Prior Lake firefighters respond to a fire at a residence at 6015 White Drive in April, one of two that broke out that day with responses from several fire departments from around Scott County. The Prior Lake Fire Department has been understaffed for about two years, its chief said, but partnerships with other departments have helped make sure no call goes unanswered.

Prior Lake is a few firefighters short of a full fire department, but its fire chief said that hasn’t affected the department’s response to fire and emergency calls around town.

Chief Rick Steinhaus as of Thursday oversaw 40 paid on-call firefighters out of an approved 45. That’s up from a lowpoint around the mid-30s two year or so ago, he said.

Being shorthanded can strain firefighters’ endurance, for which they earn $12.20 an hour, Steinhaus said. But he emphasized that the shortage is a bit of a fluke of timing, is a common issue around the state and hasn’t affected Prior Lake emergency response thanks to its partnerships with neighboring departments.

“We all rely on each other and the other departments for help,” he said. “We’re never not going to be there. But I will say it is taxing on people.”

The issue is also slowly getting better, Steinhaus added. Nine new firefighters passed their trainings and certifications a few weeks ago, meaning they can fully participate, and another four were just brought on in June to begin their own year or so of training.

Steinhaus and the city manager have also proposed bumping up the hourly rate to around $14 an hour to be more in line with other cities, pending City Council approval. It can’t speed up the training firefighters need, but it could at least compensate them a bit more for their work, Steinhaus said.

“We had a lot of people in that 20-plus-year range, and they all kind of left at the same time,” he said, referring to a bunch of retirements a couple of years ago. “Now you’re trying to play catch-up.”

The concern indeed isn’t unique to Prior Lake. Almost all departments in the state rely at least in part on volunteers, according to the Star Tribune, and the state ranks near the bottom of the country in per capita spending on fire service.

Savage Fire Department is seeing a wave of its longest-serving volunteer firefighters retiring, and its chief has said he’s prioritizing a life-work balance for the department.

Ryan Yttreness, assistant chief at the Shakopee Fire Department, said a majority of his department turned over earlier this decade and is now at a steady pace of bringing on four fighters for every one who leaves.

The loss didn’t seem to be because of pay on its own, which is around $15 an hour there, Yttreness said. Many didn’t have the time for it because the pay isn’t enough to quit a day job.

Fire school takes between 120 and 140 total hours, all occurring on weeknights at most departments. Add that to a minimum amount of calls a firefighter needs to respond to for the job, and it can be too much time away from families and home, Yttreness said.

Steinhaus said some of Prior Lake’s firefighters work full-time in other fire departments in the metropolitan area, but others are drivers, teachers, business owners, you name it. The chief is the only full-time member of the department.

Shakopee recently began bringin on new hires around May or June instead of July and August, he added, which has helped.

“They could be on staff for two months before they start fire school,” Yttreness said. “They get to make friendships and know the job. It makes it harder for them to quit.”

Still, the issue isn’t universal. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s public safety department, which assists with calls around the county, hires full-time firefighters and hasn’t seen a retention problem, Office Manager Jenni McCloud said.

“It’s pretty rare that people leave,” McCloud said.

Community editor

Dan Holtmeyer is the community editor for the Prior Lake and Savage papers. He grew up in Nebraska and worked as a journalist in Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas before coming to Minnesota in 2018.

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