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Nearly $1.3M grant helps Minn. FD staff second fire station

SAFER grant will allow Mankato Public Safety to put a day shift at Station2


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By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press

MANKATO, Minn. — Aiming to improve firefighter response time on Mankato’s hilltop, city officials are seeking a nearly $1.3 million federal grant that would allow a second fire station to operate 24 hours a day.

Currently, only Fire Station 1 — the station attached to the Public Safety Center on South Front Street near downtown — is consistently staffed during daytime hours, meaning a lengthy trip for firefighters responding to a blaze on the eastern edge of Mankato.

Success in obtaining a $1.264 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would bring full-time staffing to Fire Station 2, located on Augusta Drive near Highway 22. That station’s district includes portions of Mankato on both sides of Highway 14, much of the hilltop commercial area north of Madison Avenue and the growing number of apartment buildings along and east of Highway 22.

The Department of Public Safety prioritizes keeping those stations plus Fire Station 3 at the corner of Pohl Road and Balcerzak Drive open in the evenings and overnight, the period when the danger of fire fatalities is highest. Starting in January, the city has been attempting to staff a day shift at Station 2, but it’s difficult at the department’s size, said Public Safety Director Amy Vokal.

“We have been trying to staff a second station during the daytime hours,” Vokal said. “However, we only accomplish that when all firefighters are working.”

A fire shift involves a fire captain and four firefighters being on duty, which allows two stations to be operated with at least two firefighters at each — the minimum required number.

“Training, injuries and leave time often brings us down to three firefighters a shift and then they have to work out of only one station,” Vokal said. “So far this year, we have been able to accomplish having two stations open during the daytime hours 67% of the time.”

Success in winning a FEMA Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant would allow three full-time firefighters to be added for three years to the department’s current contingent of 20 full-timers, 10 part-timers and 32 paid-on-call firefighters.

Notifications are expected to go out to grant winners sometime between July 1 and Sept. 30 . If Mankato is a winner, the benefits will extend beyond Station 2’s district, Vokal said. Firefighters on duty at Station 2 would be able to respond to daytime fires in most of Station 3’s district, which covers the southern half of Mankato’s hilltop area, more quickly than a crew from downtown Station 1 currently can.

“Those areas north of Adams Street and east of South Victory Drive would see the most improvement,” she said, pointing to statistics gathered during those periods when Station 2 has had day-hour staffing since Jan. 1 . “While it is early in the year, staffing a second station has reduced our response time by over 40 seconds overall.”

It might not sound like a particularly meaningful difference, but it matters — both in risk to the health and safety of occupants and in the amount of damage — when a structure is burning, Vokal said.

“A small, undetected fire can engulf a home within minutes,” she said. “When firefighters can get on scene quickly to perform a rescue or apply water, the risk of injury and the extent of damage can be greatly reduced.”

Studies by the Fire Safety Research Institute have shown that some floor systems can fail in as little as six minutes after being exposed to fire.

“Once floors start to collapse, firefighters have to evacuate the structure due to dangerous conditions and are only able to fight the fire from outside, greatly reducing the possibility of rescues and salvage,” Vokal said.

The SAFER grant would fully support both the salaries and benefits for the three new full-time firefighters for three years. During those 36 months, the department would review the effectiveness of the pilot project, including the improvement in response times, and examine the feasibility of amending the city’s operating budget to make the change permanent.

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