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Minnesota F.D. Offers Free Housing to Volunteer Recruits

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Pioneer Press / Fire Chief Michael Scott knew something was afoot when an unusual scent wafted through his office at Eagan (Minn.) Fire Station No. 6.

The chief dropped everything, as they say, and sprang into action. A quick investigation revealed the source of the mystery smell: Three of the department’s youngest volunteer firefighters were baking chocolate chip muffins by the lounge.

Food, it appears, keeps college students happy.

And so does free housing.

In an experimental effort to recruit and retain fresh faces, the Eagan Fire Department has turned its extra offices and ambulance bays into dormitory-like bedrooms for three Hennepin Technical College students.

The students, ages 19 and 20, moved into the fire station off Pilot Knob and Wescott roads earlier this month. Since then, they’ve juggled college classes and part-time jobs with their firefighter training and emergency calls.

“We tend to get a little more practice than most (young recruits) … so we can teach them,” said 19-year-old Michael Vruno. “It’s a lot of fun.”

But the housing program is about more than building r sum s and instilling a sense of camaraderie.

Like other departments across the state, Eagan has seen a drop in recruits, even as emergency calls have hit record highs.

On top of a small pension for longtime members older than 50, the department offers volunteers $11 per emergency call, payable annually in a lump sum just before Christmas.

Most years, a few more volunteer firefighters step down from the department than join, and most of them are not of retirement age. Scott described many as younger folks who have moved out of their parents’ house but found Eagan rentals too expensive. Others simply decided the time commitment is too great.

Per recruit, that’s a loss to the city of about $5,000 in training costs and individualized gear. And it’s getting harder to replace them.

“A lot of times, we have people calling saying, ‘Well, I’d really like to join your department, but I can’t afford to live in your community,’ ” Scott said. “We’re not seeing a lot of young people step up to join. We’ve never had an incident where we didn’t have enough staffing, but we don’t want to get there, either.”

Vruno, who was raised in Eagan, is a notable exceptiona. He’s a volunteer firefighter by day and night, but he’s also a working teenager.

When he isn’t studying fire prevention at Hennepin Tech, he’s in the station’s common room playing “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter II” on his Xbox machine with fellow recruits Tyler Moyna, 20, and Tom “T.C.” Schellinger, 20.

For work, he delivers bounce-houses to children’s parties.

Moyna mentors troubled teens and disabled adults at a group home. And Schellinger de-ices airplanes at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport.

Scott said it cost about $10,000 to refurbish the building’s former ambulance wing, which was built in 1998, into bedrooms with a lounge. He expects the students to stick around a few semesters before he’ll reassess the situation and report back to the City Council.

So far, few complaints.

The trio is not allowed to have overnight guests, and drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited, but they say the buddy atmosphere makes up for the rules.

“It used to be I’d come home from class and it’d be, ‘OK, what now?’ ” said Moyna, who has been with the Fire Department since high school. “(At home), you’d have nothing to do.”

Offering firefighters a free place to stay is not an entirely novel approach. Fire departments in Mankato, Minn., and Fergus Falls, Minn., have done so for years, housing five to 10 at a time, without age restrictions.

Scott said he met a Fergus Falls man who had lived in his firehouse for 22 years and used the money he’d saved on housing to buy a weekend lake home.

The tradition of boarding students at the municipal fire station on the Oregon State University campus dates back decades. The college firehouse has been home to women and men, some of whom have stayed on with the department into middle age.

If Eagan’s program is equally successful, Scott would like to see it expand.

Here’s why: The department has tried — unsuccessfully — to maintain 120 firefighters on its roster. Membership usually hovers at just over 100, with six to eight firefighters added each year. In the past five years, however, the department lost 53 people, only 12 of them to retirement — an average of 10 departures annually.

Aliina Granholm, editor in chief of Minnesota Fire Chief Magazine, said Eagan’s recruitment blues are not unusual. But she said using housing as a recruiting tool could be a way for more cities to avoid the cost of hiring a cadre of full-time firefighters.

In December 2006, a state task force delivered a two-year report on firefighter recruitment to the state’s public safety commissioner, identifying a raft of possible approaches to draw more volunteers. Among them were child care options for stay-at-home parents, tax incentives and enrollment in a state-backed pension plan.

On a brighter note for Eagan, this year’s new recruit class has 17 members, one of the largest in memory. That brings current staffing up to 112 volunteers, just eight short of the department’s goal.

“But I know there are people leaving this year,” Scott said.

The department responded to a record 940 calls last year, up from about 890 the year before. About a third were in north Eagan, which is dotted with clusters of apartment buildings and commercial or industrial sites.

With few volunteer firefighters living in that area, the young faces at Fire Station No. 6 — just south of the high-call districts — are literally lifesavers.

And that’s fine by them.

“I’d love to stay as long as they’ll have me,” Moyna said.

Frederick Melo can be reached at [email protected]