Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 22, 2004

Winsted short of firefighters, pay issue surfaces

By Jane Otto

A shortage of firefighters prompted the Winsted City Council at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss whether the volunteer force should be paid.

“It’s one of the only true volunteer fire departments left,” Winsted Fire Chief Scott Zubrod said. Zubrod was at the meeting to give the council a quarterly report. The department is short nine firefighters, he told the council.

“Basically, in the past, when I joined, there was a list to choose from,” he said adding that the qualifications and training have changed significantly over the past years.

Training is rigorous. Within the first year, firefighters must qualify to be a first responder, he said.

According to the firefighter application, basic qualifications include a high school diploma or equivalent, valid Minnesota driver’s license, and pass a written examination, which covers reading comprehension, basic mathematics and science, mechanical aptitude, and communication skills.

Applicants also take a physical agility test, have a medical examination, and a background check.

The department has five interested candidates to be interviewed and if they qualify, “get on board for training,” Zubrod said, but asked the council how he could boost his recruitment.

Council Member Bonnie Quast suggested advertising for volunteers and listing the requirements.

Council Member Tom Wiemiller asked if the department had ever been shorthanded responding to a call.

“No,” replied Zubrod, saying the shortage isn’t a “major concern.” He didn’t say, however, at what point it would become a concern.

“There’s always mutual aid,” Zubrod told council members. Plato and Glencoe have an agreement to provide mutual aid on all calls.

“I don’t think the general public realizes the amount of training it takes to be a firefighter,” Wiemiller said.

He asked Zubrod if he thought about paying his crew.

“Well, now that you bring it up,” Zubrod said, adding that most fire departments pay their members a per-call wage. Paying firefighters would require council approval, he said, and devastate the department’s budget. “It would raise your per unit cost,” he said.

A per-unit cost is what the city and the townships the department serves pay for fire coverage.

A varied pay scale

What other departments pay firefighters, if they get paid at all, varies.

Lester Prairie is “100 percent volunteer,” Lester Prairie City Clerk Marilyn Pawelk said Wednesday.

In August, the department discusses its upcoming budget with the city and Winsted and Bergen townships, Pawelk said. “No wage compensation has ever been mentioned.”

Montrose firefighters are also strictly volunteer. “We realize that many Wright County fire departments do pay,” Montrose City Administrator Barb Swanson said. “But, we have not set a fee per call at this time.”

New Germany firefighters receive a flat rate of $7.50 per call, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 hours.

Howard Lake and Silver Lake firefighters get an hourly wage. Howard Lake pays $7 per hour on an annual basis. Silver Lake firefighters receive $5.25 per hour for run time and meetings.

“I’m surprised Winsted doesn’t receive a pay,” Silver Lake Administrator Kerry Venier said.

Zubrod reminded council members that the department willingly participates in city events such as the weekend-long summer and winter festivals.

“People that do it really enjoy it, but there are some sacrifices going on . . . basically, you’re taking a couple of weekends out of a person’s life with no compensation,” Zubrod said. “We know the city recognizes us and we appreciate that, but it’s a thankless job sometimes.”

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