Officials Push for Full-time Fire Chief in Minnesota Town

By 9 a.m. Wednesday, Eagan Fire Chief Bob Kriha was immersed at the scene of a blazing apartment building fire, commanding 30 firefighters in his department and responders from three other cities.

The 19-year department veteran stayed long after the last flame was snuffed, assisting his crew and searching for lingering hot spots. Then he got started on the mountain of paperwork that accompanies such a fire.

His day more than half over, Kriha then left for his "real" job. He's the development supervisor for Manley Brothers Construction, Inc.

As Eagan's part-time volunteer fire chief, Kriha, 47, easily logs upward of 50 hours a week in the administration of the 150-person department and its $1.26 million budget.

Eagan is one of a dwindling number of metropolitan area cities that does not have a full-time fire chief.

Kriha knew what the hours would be when he was promoted to the post in 2003, but he and the rank-and-file members of the city's department believe the city should hire a full-time, professional chief.

"It's a lot of work just ask my wife," Kriha said ruefully. "I try to do early morning and lunch meetings, but I'm here a minimum of three nights a week until 10:30 with all the administrative stuff."

A fire department committee, which studied the issue for the past 18 months, has recommended Eagan hire a full-time chief, said co-chairman Dirk Bjornson. The committee also forwarded salary suggestions and a job description.

City officials refused to say what the suggested salary might be. In similarly sized Brooklyn Park, the full-time fire chief earns $102,000 a year. The Eagan City Council will decide whether to fund a new full-time chief position when it passes the 2006 budget proposal this fall.

"I think it's time. There's no question about it," said Mayor Pat Geagan, the city's former police chief. "I won't make predictions about what the council will do, but the biggest thing is that the fire department is interested and wants this."

It's a decision Eagan has grappled with before, and one that many cities have made in the past few years.

"Eagan and Bloomington are the two biggest cities without a full-time chief," said Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Steve Schmidt, who consulted with Eagan in the early 1990s on the issue.

"Honestly, it surprises me that they've gone as long as they have without hiring one," Schmidt said. "What most departments are finding out is that it is almost impossible for a non-full-time chief to operate."

Eagan, like many municipalities, relies on part-time, volunteer firefighters. Some cities, like Coon Rapids, Woodbury and Plymouth, have a hybrid of career professionals and paid-on-call firefighters.

Others such as South St. Paul and Burnsville do not use a volunteer system at all.

A move by the city to hire a full-time chief does not signal the beginning of a transition to full-time status for the entire department. Too many public dollars are at stake to warrant such a makeover, city administrator Tom Hedges said.

"We've never even had that discussion," he said. "That's not what this is about."

The on-call firefighters in Eagan receive $10 per call, are vested in a pension plan after five years of service and are eligible for retirement benefits after 20 years. Kriha receives a stipend of $900 per month.

"The sheer numbers and size of the operation are factors here," Hedges said. "All the former volunteer chiefs will tell you that it doesn't take much for them to find themselves here 40 hours a week."

Eagan's population has surged to more than 66,000 residents, and 50,000 people work in the city every day, a growth reflected in the department's five fire stations.

Lakeville and Apple Valley have hired chiefs in recent years. Lakeville hired Scott Nelson away from Red Wing in 2004, after the council invested substantial time developing new policies, he said.

"It's a change, and it can be a tough change because it's a change of culture," Nelson said. "But the city was real progressive in how they handled it. They took the time to set it up, and everyone agreed to just get it done and done right."

The question to hire a chief has bubbled up at least three times before, said city officials, who agreed this latest push seems the most serious.

"Eagan is the eighth-largest city in Minnesota, and we are blessed and I mean blessed with our volunteer fire department," said Council Member Peggy Carlson.

"And they are die-hards. So, if in fact we can continue to offer a volunteer fire department and they want (a full-time chief), I can't imagine that the council will not take that request very seriously."

So does Kriha, who makes no bones about wanting the job.

"I absolutely would want it," he said. "But I have been doing both jobs and would continue to do both. I've pretty much committed my life to this."