Minnesota departments dealing with firefighter shortage, working to recruit new members

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Fire departments throughout Minnesota are expressing concern about the dwindling number of people willing to do the job.

They presented the issue to state leaders Wednesday, hoping lawmakers could help come up with solutions.

"If we don't look at ways to try to draw people in, it's going to be an issue in years to come," said Hopkins Fire Chief Dale Specken.

Chief Specken said his department is supposed to have 42 paid-on-call firefighters but currently only has 31. And, they're just not getting the number of applicants they had a few decades ago.

It's a growing problem throughout the state, according to State Fire Marshal Jim Smith.

"It's a combination of the current generation's getting older and the younger generation, a lot of them don't want to be firefighters," Smith said.

There are currently about 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota, with about 18,000 of them being volunteers or paid-on-call. Overall, firefighter numbers in Minnesota are down nearly 700 people in just the last five years.

It's especially troublesome in Greater Minnesota, where there are more volunteer departments. If one isn't fully staffed, they have to call in extra help from neighboring communities.

"They could be 20 miles away," Smith said. "That's a half-hour response time and when you're talking about a fire that doubles in size every 30 seconds to a minute, 30 minutes is a very long time."

Specken said his department has tried to get creative in recruiting new members, blasting social media and canvassing local neighborhoods.

"We send stuff home in their water bills. We have gone door-to-door knocking," Specken said.

And the Minnesota Board of Fire Training and Education is putting up $4.6 million this year to help departments train new members. Right now, they're encouraging the public to consider joining the fire service, either as a volunteer or paid-on-call firefighter. You could make up to $18 per hour. If you're interested, reach out to your local fire department.