St. Paul firefighters are calling a new city initiative that has them patrolling city streets a threat to public safety, pointing to this past weekend when two fires stressed department resources they say already are thin.
"This policy, frankly, is ridiculous," said Pat Flanagan, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 president, at a news conference at Sims and Payne avenues, where a three-alarm fire swept through a commercial building Sunday. Diverting staff and fire trucks jeopardizes their ability to respond, he said.
But Fire Chief Doug Holton responded Tuesday by saying the union's contention is ridiculous.
Mayor Randy Kelly announced the launch last week of Operation CARE, Comprehensive Area Reclamation Enterprise, which involves police officers, code inspectors and firefighters cracking down on quality-of-life crimes in St. Paul's hot spots.
Fire personnel are going door-to-door and fire vehicles are patrolling neighborhoods from 6 to 10 p.m. "to show a presence in the neighborhoods" and keeping an eye out for junk cars, looking for loose trash that could be a fire hazard and watching for any missing address numbers, which could mean a delay in an emergency, Holton said.
The dispute isn't just about public safety, though. It's part of a growing political rift between Kelly and rank-and-file firefighters.
At the news conference and in a letter to Holton dated Tuesday, Flanagan outlined the union's concerns.
"Diverting critical staff and equipment jeopardizes our ability to respond to an emergency," the letter said.
But Holton said, "That's a total fallacy there."
"All companies are patrolling in their first-alarm response areas and actually their response times are going to be quicker because they're ready to go," he said.
Firefighters are not trained to be crime fighters, Flanagan said.
"If St. Paul needs more police, we encourage the city to hire more," Flanagan wrote in the letter.
Holton said no one is asking firefighters to be police officers if they see suspicious activity, they're expected to contact dispatchers, not respond themselves.
In addition to the Sims Avenue fire that firefighters fought from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and again Monday during a flare-up, a man was injured in a small fire at Seventh Place on Sunday morning. He was in serious condition Tuesday at Hennepin County Medical Center, Holton said.
Three Minneapolis Fire Department trucks assisted, and 12 off-duty St. Paul firefighters were called in to help on Sunday.
The firefighters union was a staunch supporter of Kelly as a candidate in 2001. Kelly is running for re-election this year, but the union has objected to the decommissioning of a fire engine near University Avenue and Vandalia Street. Members also have been working without a contract for nearly 18 months.
On April 10, the union endorsed Kelly's principal rival, Chris Coleman, saying he had gone to bat for them during budget cuts while he served as a City Council member.
Union members have been stumping for Coleman regularly, playing a significant role in his effort to earn the DFL endorsement in April. Since then, they've been organizing a volunteer campaign effort once a week, marching with him at Grand Old Day Sunday and scheduling a fundraiser for him at Mancini's on June 22.