Fruetel eyed as 5th Minneapolis fire chief in 8 yearsby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minneapolis City Council votes Friday on Mayor R.T. Rybak's nominee for fire chief.
John Fruetel would be the city's fifth fire chief in just eight years. He appears to have strong support on the city council, and if confirmed will take over a department suffering from low morale and shrinking budgets.
Fruetel actually retired from the Minneapolis Fire Department about a year-and-a-half ago, after 31 years there. In 2007, he was an assistant chief.
On the evening of Aug. 1 that year, Fruetel was on his motorcycle, riding to a Twins game. His cell phone rang.
"I pulled off on 5th avenue downtown and picked up and looked at the message, and then I got the message that the 35W bridge had just collapsed."
Fruetel rushed to the scene. From that moment on, he was incident commander for the rescue effort. James Clack was fire chief at the time.
"And I think that although we lost 13 people that night, it could have been much, much worse," Clack said. "And John's efforts, I think, really made a difference in the people that were able to survive that terrible event. And he did a great job."
Comparatively, taking over as fire chief might seem easy. But there are serious challenges. The department has a morale problem and the city council knows it, said Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters union.
"I kind of chuckle when they ask about it, to be honest with you, because it's pretty lousy," Lakosky said. "The joke is they really don't care."
Lakosky says the flagging morale stems from a steady reduction in the number of firefighters. The department has about 400 firefighters today, or about 20 fewer than it had six years ago.
Lakosky hopes Fruetel will be a strong advocate for the department and shield it from further cuts. But he's not convinced that will be the case.
"If he says 'I'm a 30-plus year firefighter with experience. I'm the go-to guy with emergency preparedness. I've been to Katrina. I've been to bridge collapse.' I would hope that if he says we need to hold the line, I would they would take that in as their expert," Lakosky said.
But there will also be pressure from the other direction. In recent months, the city council has scrutinized the department's $1 million annual overtime budget. An analysis suggested those costs were inflated because of possible abuse of sick time.
The report showed firefighters were more likely to take sick leave on summer days and weekends. Council member Betsy Hodges says the next chief will have opportunities to address that issue with the firefighters.
"To help them frame that as an issue that they can do something about, that empowers them to do something about the conditions of their work at a time when they're feeling that they haven't had much say in the conditions of their work," Hodges said.
The council confronted current Fire Chief Alex Jackson about the issue in a tense public hearing late last year. About a month later, Jackson announced he would retire after four years as chief.
Over the last decade, Minneapolis has had a difficult time holding on to a fire chief. Before Jackson, there was Clack, who left after two years to take over the department in Baltimore. Clack took over from Bonnie Bleskachek, who was demoted after a flurry of firefighter lawsuits accused her of sexual harassment and other misconduct. She took over the job from Rocco Forte in 2004.
Fruetel, who turns 60 this year, isn't sure how long he'll remain in the job.
"You know I would to spend some time here. I know that I'm in the sunset of my career, but I plan to be as effective as I can be in the short time that I may have left in my career."
If the city council confirms Fruetel on Friday, he will start his role as chief on March 1.
- Morning Edition, 01/26/2012, 7:20 a.m.