New Vadnais Heights, Minnesota Fire Chief in Line of Fire

One of the first fires that Ed Leier will face as Vadnais Heights' first full-time fire chief is the one smoldering in the fire department.

Leier, a Minnesota homeland security official, starts his new job at the end of the month. City officials and former volunteer fire chiefs agree he's the right man for the job. But they disagree on most everything else.

"Ed would have been my first choice," said Ken Lorenz, a volunteer fire chief from 1975 to 1990. "I think Ed can do the job, but he's walking into a hornet's nest."

The swarm has led to a 30 percent reduction in the number of volunteer firefighters, to 26. And while current firefighters say call times have not been affected, Lorenz worries that more resignations will come.

But city officials are banking that Leier's experience in Maplewood will pay off for Vadnais Heights. Leier, who declined to be interviewed, was a fire chief of one of three volunteer fire departments that Maplewood merged into one in 1996, when it also hired a single full-time chief.

Such transitions are often tumultuous, said Jerry Auge, another former Vadnais Heights fire chief, who retired three years ago.

"It seems that when fire departments go from being volunteer to being run on a full-time status, things are pretty rocky for a period," he said. "The first fire chief doesn't usually make it too long."

But perhaps Leier will sympathize with volunteers reluctant to change. According to news articles published at the time, he resisted the Maplewood mergers.

Then, as now with Vadnais Heights, a key issue was control. Volunteer fire departments are accustomed to nearly complete autonomy, voting not only on officers but often on members. Such independence has become complicated by modern costs, liabilities and legal obligations, some fed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Mayor Susan Banovetz.

The city allocates about $600,000 a year for firefighting, she said, plus foots the bill for equipment and facilities.

"For a number of years, even though they received considerable funds from the city they had their own government almost," Banovetz said. "Yet the City Council is ultimately responsible."

As cities have offered fire volunteers benefits such as insurance and workers' compensation, firefighters have taken on aspects of city employees, said Mark Sather, city manager of White Bear Lake, which hired its first full-time fire chief in the early 1980s.

What happens then, if volunteers vote a member out?

"There were times that people didn't question that," Sather said. "Now people ask, 'Was I discharged for reasonable cause?' "

The transition to modern realities is difficult for organizations steeped in history and fraternal underpinnings. The key is to give firefighters as much autonomy as possible, he said. White Bear Lake firefighters vote on many issues, including which equipment purchases to seek. The full-time chief then takes those requests to the city.

Vadnais Heights firefighters receive $12 per fire call, no matter how long it takes. That's not their incentive, Auge said.

"It's got to be a happy place for them to come to," he said. "They've got to want to be there."

Retired chief Auge's discontent with the city's management of the fire department fueled his unsuccessful run for mayor against Banovetz this fall. The city has been too receptive to complaints from disgruntled volunteers, which sparked some resignations, he said.

"The city micromanaged the department a bit," he said. "When you're out there making decisions about a burning house, you can't be calling the City Council about how to do it."

Banovetz agreed and said that the council has since told volunteers to observe their internal chain of command.

The hiring of a full-time chief is one of the most visible aspects of change, and one reason long-time volunteers fight it.

Former chief Lorenz says the position is not necessary. He points out that Bloomington, with 85,000 residents, just hired a full-time chief last year.

"Surely a little city of 16,000 can make it work" with a volunteer chief, he said.

But times have changed, said Bob Running, a former fire chief and current firefighter. Dual-income families and faster living mean that 20-year volunteers are a thing of the past, Running said. People are more likely to volunteer for eight or 10 years and then retreat to less-intense schedules. A full-time chief helps ensure continuity.

"It should have been done years ago," he said of Leier's hiring.

"I don't think it's fair to anyone to work a full-time job during the day and do their duties as a chief and have a family," Banovetz said.

She hopes the participatory nature of Leier's hiring firefighters contributed interview questions and provided feedback on the finalists will soothe ruffled feathers.

"We used to have a professional fire department, and we want to get back to that," Running said. "If people can't adjust, they'll have to move on."