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Life continues at a hectic pace for the members of the Minot Fire Department and the Minot Police Department, even as the economy in the Minot area has slowed a bit in the last couple of years and the city’s estimated population has declined slightly.
That’s because the number of calls for service continues to rise for both departments. As expected, the Police Department’s number of calls far exceeds the number of calls for the Fire Department; that’s simply the nature of the two departments.
Leaders of both departments face similar challenges:
“We respond to such a wide variety of calls for service, and our numbers are still going up despite the economic slowdown and the decrease in Minot’s population,” Minot Fire Chief Kelli Flermoen said. “We provide a very good service to our community. I’m so proud of our department and the level of service we provide.”
Police Chief Jason Olson faces a similar situation in his department.
“I’ve seen reports that show Minot’s population is dropping, but we’ve not seen a correlating drop in our calls for service. In fact, it’s been just the opposite,” he said. “Our problems didn’t leave when the oil industry slowed down.”
Minot Police Department
In fact, 2017 was a record year for the police department’s number of calls for service. The department has seen a dramatic rise in calls for service in the past decade.
“Our numbers have leveled off a little bit, but they’re still climbing,” Olson said. “For 2018 so far, we’re running about 5% above 2017, and 2017 was a record year for us.”
Drug-related crimes have skyrocketed nationally, and Minot isn’t immune to that trend.
“We’re seeing way, way more calls related to drugs than ever before, for everything from drug possession and trafficking, to overdoses, property, and violent crimes. We’re seeing it, the state is seeing it, and we’re seeing it nationwide,” Olson said.
Minot, like other North Dakota cities, has always had its share of drug-related criminal activity. But the problem has grown dramatically. Opioid abuse is on the rise, but Olson said other dangerous drugs are found on Minot’s streets, too.
“Opioids are getting a lot of attention, but we really haven’t seen a dip in the amount of meth we see on the streets, either,” he said. “When I first started as a patrol officer, I didn’t see nearly the amount of cocaine and heroin that we see now. Things have changed.”
Keeping a fully staffed department to deal with the rising number of calls for service has been a challenge, Olson said. In the past five years, the PD has seen about a 15% turnover rate every year. The department is nearly fully staffed currently, with 82 positions filled out of a possible 83 spots. Of the current 82 employees, seven are in training.
“It used to be where four or five new employees a year was normal. Now 12 is normal,” Olson said.
There are numerous reasons why employees leave, Olson said. Some of the most common?
“We’ve heard everything from ‘This is way more paperwork than I thought it would be’ to ‘This is way more dangerous than I thought it would be.’ Everyone has their reasons for leaving, but the constant turnover has been a challenge,” Olson said. “No matter the reason, the bottom line is that they’re still leaving at higher rates than in previous years.”
One consequence of the high turnover is that the average years of experience on the police force continues to drop. Overall job knowledge and experience are difficult to replace when a veteran officer leaves or retires.
“When I started, an officer usually had 15 years of experience before being promoted to detective,” Olson said. “Now sometimes they’re promoted to detective with 2 or 3 years of experience. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it or haven’t earned that promotion. It’s just different.”
Minot Fire Department
It’s a similar story for the Minot Fire Department. Flermoen said her department continues to see growth in the number of calls for service, too, despite an economic slowdown and a minor decrease in Minot’s population.
The last three years have seen continued growth, and the number of calls for service in 2018 is running ahead of 2017.
Flermoen said roughly 60% of calls to the Fire Department are for medical assistance. Fire Department employees have more medical training than police officers, and Fire Department vehicles carry oxygen, Narcan, and other vital medical equipment.
“Many times we are the main medical assistance for an accident victim or a heart attack victim until the ambulance arrives on scene. Our crews often provide life-saving treatment,” she said.
The loss of experienced crew members coupled with the rising number of calls for service has changed the department’s daily operations.
“We no longer run rescue trucks simply because we don’t have enough experienced and trained personnel to do that. So we respond to everything with full engines,” Flermoen said. “It’s been very challenging. By the end of this year, we’ll have all new battalion chiefs, too. So not only are we young on the firefighter side, we also have relatively new leadership.”
If fully staffed, the Fire Department would have 67 employees. Right now, Flermoen said there are 64 employees, including eight firefighters who completed training on May 25. Of those employees, one must remain at the fire station adjacent to the airport at all times to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Under ideal circumstances, a fire department would see a turnover rate of one or two employees a year. In Flermoen’s 2½ years as chief, the department has hired 31 new employees. The department’s average years of service will soon fall to approximately 6.5 years. The high turnover rate has real consequences that are felt every day.
“Constant turnover hurts morale. It’s hard to keep the more experienced members of our staff excited about doing the same basic training over and over again because we have to get the newest members up to speed,” said Flermoen. “It’s become a vicious cycle.”
Flermoen said it takes a good two to three years before a new recruit has enough training and experience to be a solid firefighter.
“And that’s not a knock on anyone,” she said. “There’s simply so much to learn and so much training that it takes that long to get up to speed.”
Members of the Fire Department are in a state of almost constant training. In 2017, Fire Department employees completed 25,217 hours of training, including hazardous materials response, confined space, structure collapse, trench accidents, and other situational training.
The constant training pays off when they respond to an incident without knowing the full details of the situation.
“We’re very good problem solvers. We bring a high level of creativity to unique situations when we respond to a call,” Flermoen said. “If someone needs rescue from one of the wind towers south of town, that takes creativity on our part simply because our equipment may not reach high enough. But we’ve trained on those wind tower structures, which helps us quickly assess the situation and respond accordingly.”
Because the department responds to situations at the Minot International Airport, every firefighter is required to complete monthly training provided by the Federal Aviation Administration. Flermoen said firefighters often attend the training on their days off or even when they’re on vacation.
“If someone misses the required FAA training for a particular month, they are not allowed to respond to an incident at the airport for a full calendar year,” she said. “Obviously, that would hinder our department’s ability to effectively respond to a situation at the airport, so our employees go to great lengths to make sure no one misses the training required by the FAA.”
Flermoen said she’s also proud that the Minot Fire Department and the Minot Police Department work together on the Bomb Squad. The Fire Department provides one technician, while the Police Department provides two technicians. The Fire Department also provides medical assistance to the SWAT team in case officer is injured.
“We can’t find anywhere else in the United States where the Fire Department and the Police Department have this level of cooperation with a Bomb Squad,” she said. “Typically, either the Fire Department has a Bomb Squad or the Police Department has a Bomb Squad, but it’s very unusual to see this type of cooperation.”