Audit: St. Paul Fire Department in crisisby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
A new audit requested by St. Paul city officials says the city's fire department is in crisis. The report recommends a number of sweeping changes, including personnel changes and closing down fire stations. The audit comes in the wake of deteriorating labor management relations, and a union vote of no confidence against Chief Doug Holton.
St. Paul, Minn. — The report suggests the only way to resolve the crisis is to to rebuild trust in the relationship between management and the firefighters union.
The audit says the rancor within the department is not affecting public safety. But the report warns the public could be affected if the labor management issues are not addressed.
The audit found that management, which includes the chief and assistant chiefs, to be "micro-managing" and too "top down."
St. Paul Firefighters Local 21 secretary Chris Parsons says the audit concludes what union members have been saying all along.
"That there's a problem with micro-management, that other opinions are not valued," said Parsons. "And the report clearly states that. It uses pretty strong words like weak, unresponsive leadership, poor communication practices, unresolved conflicts, polarization, low morale, lack of direction, mistrust."
St. Paul Fire Chief Doug Holton says his response to that is to sit down and start talking, to "get everybody back in the game, seeing if we can take some of the emotion out of this tension, and just get everybody to just take a deep breath, come to the table, let's all talk, and let's see how we want to communicate more effectively in the future."
Holton was appointed in 2003 by then-mayor Randy Kelly. His term expires in 2009. He calls the audit "unbiased" and an "exciting opportunity."
But Holton could leave St. Paul. He is a finalist for the fire chief position with the city of Milwaukee, where he worked for many years before taking the job in St. Paul. For now, though, Holton says he's concentrating on the report's suggestions.
The audit is significant, with a total of 139 recommendations.
Top among them is reorganizing the department to reflect the high volume of paramedic calls it handles. The St. Paul department is one of a few in the country that handles fire and paramedic calls using the same personnel.
The audit says 80 percent of the department's calls are now medical calls, and the department isn't properly structured to handle them. So the audit recommends creating two paramedic units immediately, and adding four emergency medical technicians.
At the same time, the number of St. Paul's multi-alarm fires is not high enough to justify the number of fire stations. And in fact, the number of structure fires in cities across the country is stable and projected to go down. One audit proposal recommends closing three of the 16 stations, and staffing medics at all of the remaining 13 stations.
The five-month audit was conducted by TriData, a Virginia-based firm.
Mayor Chris Coleman says he wants immediate action on many of the recommendations.
"I'm here for several years still, and I'm going to make sure that these recommendations get implemented," Coleman said at a briefing releasing the report. "I've asked the unions to take part in this process, I've directed the chief to take part in this process."
Coleman says he has already asked the chief to make changes in his leadership team, which could include eliminating an assistant chief position.
The audit also recommends the city create an emergency management department to prepare for disasters, emergencies, and planning for the 2008 Republican National Convention. Coleman says he will move right away to appoint an emergency management director, who would report directly to the mayor.
As for the personnel crisis in the department, Coleman says problems have been on a "slow boil" for years. But he's confident the relationships can be repaired.
"It is true that this is not new, nor is it particular to the St. Paul Fire Department. There are other departments that have seen similar problems," Coleman says. "But I believe today we have a fresh start. I believe that we have a new map, and a new direction, and a new compass to go forward with. And everyone has committed their best efforts to that, and I'm going to ensure that that happens."
Coleman says Chief Holton and union officials have agreed to sit down with state mediators.
Coleman has appointed two teams -- a community group and another team from within the fire department. Both will meet over the next six months to come up with a five-year strategic plan based on the audit recommendations.
Those teams are expected to begin their work on Friday.