Fire department has new strategic plan

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

For the first time in its 133-year history, the Elk River Fire Department has a strategic plan.

The cover of the Elk River Fire Department's new strategic plan for 2013-2017.
The cover of the Elk River Fire Department’s new strategic plan for 2013-2017.

A 10-member task force met 14 times over the past year to draft the plan for 2013-2017. It was unanimously approved by the Elk River City Council on Monday, March 18.

Fire Chief T. John Cunningham said the 50-page plan outlines where they want to go. Overall, he’s very pleased with it, he said. Mayor John Dietz, who served on the task force, also expressed support for the plan.

Dietz said the process was contentious at times. “We did have a couple of long, hard meetings with the fire department,” he said.

The plan lays out 10 initiatives, one of which deals with organizational structure and career development. Dietz said he thinks firefighters’ main concerns dealt with the new organizational chart and two full-time deputy chiefs projected to be added in the future.

One would be a deputy chief of operations and the other a deputy chief for training and safety.

The training and safety division would direct the fire department’s training program, including creating an internal fire academy for new recruits, and coordinate the city’s safety program. Dietz believes the deputy chief for training and operations would come on line if Elk River becomes more of a destination for fire training. The only way he sees that position being filled is if most of the salary was funded by revenues generated by teaching classes to firefighters from outside Elk River who would come to the city for training, he said. One of the goals in the plan is for Elk River to become a leader in emergency services training and market and provide that training to the public and private sector.

“The other deputy chief position caused the most angst among firefighters, I believe,” Dietz said of the deputy chief of operations.

The operations division would oversee day-to-day emergency response operations, including the direct supervision of the department’s on-call leadership staff.

The mayor noted that deputy chief position would have to be thoroughly vetted through the budgeting process and pass through normal channels of approval, including the City Council, before being filled.

“There’s no guarantee. That has to stand on its own merit at the appropriate time,” he added.

Overall, the mayor looks for the fire department’s bylaws to go away and the fire department to be like every other department in the city.

He said there will probably be some angst going forward, but believes there are a lot of good things in the plan. He said it’s a working document, not etched in stone.

Former Council Member Jerry Gumphrey, who did not seek re-election and finished out his term in December, expressed support for the plan in an e-mail Dietz read at the meeting. Gumphrey served on the task force that drafted it.

In addition to the mayor, Gumphrey and the fire chief, the task force included four representatives from the fire department: Phil Collins, district chief; Chris Curtis, captain; and Dave King and Joseph Libor, firefighters. Other task force members were Ron Nierenhausen, police captain; Tim Simon, finance director; and Fire Chief Jerry Streich from the Centennial fire district. Cal Portner, city administrator; and Lauren Wipper, human resources representative; served as ad-hoc members of the task force.

Fast facts about the Elk River Fire Department

•The department has been operational since 1881.

•It provides all-hazard emergency and nonemergency services to the city of Elk River and its contractual partners of Otsego and Big Lake. The department serves approximately 35,000 residents in a 66-square-mile coverage area.

•Firefighters respond to approximately 450 calls a year, ranging from structure fires to car accidents to fire alarms. The number of calls increased 35 percent between 2001 and 2011.

•Elk River’s first full-time fire chief was hired in 1994.

•The department has 40 on-call members and two stations. One of the objectives in the plan calls for adding 15 on-call firefighters within three years.

•Fire protection costs approximately $70.28 per capita in Minnesota compared to the national average of $137.83, according to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association. Cost per capita in Elk River is roughly $21 — 70 percent below the state and 85 percent below the national per capita average.

Source: Elk River Fire Department Strategic Plan, 2013-2017