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Firefighters improve service in 2016

Farmington Fire Chief Jim Larsen reported the city has been investing in firefighting apparatus and new equipment, but now can concentrate efforts on recruiting 16 new firefighters and testing begins this Saturday. Photo by Kara Hildreth

Farmington Fire Department aims to extinguish seconds and even minutes off of response times to fire and rescue calls.

"In 2016, our real focus has been on service delivery improvements and improvements with apparatus and equipment, and just providing an exceptional level of service to the community," said Farmington Fire Chief Jim Larsen as he presented the department's annual report at the May 1 council meeting.

This week work is underway to recruit 16 new firefighters to the existing 60 member volunteer team.

A recruitment orientation session was slated to take place this Wednesday evening at Fire Station 1, and all-day testing will be Saturday at Firehouse 2.

A month ago, the fire department garnered more than 40 applications from individuals who want to serve as volunteer firefighters. That is good news, Larsen said.

The overall recruitment process could take a month after applicants must pass an oral exam, physical ability testing, a background check and medical screening.

"Just like 92 percent of fire departments in the state, we rely on volunteer personnel and while Minnesota is way ahead in many area for quality of life, it ranks forty-fifth in the country for spending on fire departments," Larsen said.

Mutual aid

Farmington Fire Department is 60 members strong to offer fire and rescue services to Farmington and the townships of Castle Rock, Eureka and Empire. The department works in collaboration with mutual aid partners to provide life-saving services throughout an 80-mile service area.

After recruits pass the testing benchmarks this week, the Farmington Fire Academy training begins in September.

"It takes a year of training to come off probationary status," Larsen said.

Because most fire calls take place between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. when most people work a full-time job, Larsen said it can be a challenge to fill positions. It can be optimal to recruit new firefighters who work in town or telecommute from home.

"It is a constant battle since we have essentially volunteers and it can be difficult to leave full-time employment to respond to calls — this is not only our struggle," Larsen said, but most fire departments across the state are challenged because this is the Minnesota model.

Because the city was able to attain double the reimbursements from the state, Larsen said his department was able to double the training.

"This has improved our response times by double digit percentages," Larsen said.

Those seconds or minutes can certainly save lives.

The fact the city operates with two firehouses helps, but volunteer firefighters still have to drive to the station, get dressed and ready to respond to calls, and this travel commute time can add five to seven minutes to response times, Larsen explained.

Swift action

During the council meeting, members watched a resident's home video that captured how swiftly the Farmington Fire department arrived to begin responding to a blazing house fire.

On this call, response time was less than two minutes to fight a fire at a two-story house. Within those two minutes, firefighters responded with two lines of water after establishing a water supply and were able to extinguish the blazing house fire with multiple vehicles on fire inside the attached garage.

"Even though it seems like an eternity to the public, from the time we pulled up and set that brake on the engine, to the time we ran the first line of water, it was a minute and 41 seconds, and the second line we got going in one minute and 52 seconds, so we were able to establish a water supply in under two minutes," Larsen said.

"That is exceptional and this is in real time with nothing going on," said Larsen.

Swift firefighting action serves as proof and tout the benefits reaped from firefighting training.

"We were able to respond safer, faster and with more confidence," Larsen said.

As Farmington's residency ages and grows in population, there will be an increased demand and greater need for a higher numbers of services.

Monday evenings the fire department trains by raising ladders, stretching hoses, pumping apparatus and flowing water. Firefighters also attend conferences and seminars outside of online training.

"We did a lot training last year and will continue to do that this year, and we will have classroom instruction, a lot of hands-on training and more online training that is cost effective," Larsen said. Online training can be more effective overall and a better use of firefighters' time.

Larsen added "We have a more prepared and competent fire fighting force today and when we get out on the ground, we have better operational effectiveness."

Farmington Fire Department facts

The Farmington Fire Department is a full service, all hazards department that provides fire and rescue services to Farmington, Castle Rock, Eureka and Empire.

The department works with mutual aid partners to provide life-saving services throughout its 80-mile service area.

Today the volunteer fire department staffs an authorized strength of 60 members, an increase of 10 members from last year.

Farmington Fire Department covers 80 square miles of territory with two fire houses located on the city's north and south sides.

2016 Farmington fire service breakdown:

701 calls or 51 percent were EMS (Emergency Medical Service) calls and 49 percent were fire calls.

27 structural fires, eight vehicle fires and 10 brush fires, along with seven vehicle extrications and 35 unauthorized burning calls.

The fire department aims to increase training hours each year. In 2014, the department completed 2,594 hours of training. In 2015, the department increased training to 4,000 hours.

In 2016, the fire department completed 6,100 training hours.