Acting Fire Chief Talks 2016 Goals, Challenges

Fire Halls To Provide Better Gender Equity

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The number of fires might be stagnant, but Duluth firefighters are responding to a record number of calls for service. FOX 21’s Dan Hanger spoke one-on-one with Acting Fire Chief Erik Simonson about that subject and topics like diversity on the force.

“Just the service calls are incredible. Checking welfare and boarding up buildings and other things we are involved in, gas calls,” Simonson said.

Simonson estimates his men and women will respond to more than 12,000 calls by the end of 2015, compared to more than 8,000 in 2010.

“It used to be a call to 911 — you were really sick or you were really hurting,” Simonson explained.
“You never want to encourage people not to call, but at the same time … it’s just different times right now.”

Meanwhile, staffing is flat for 2016 at 63 firefighters, but that number is up from 45 in 2012.

“Right now we are OK. We just went through a major change a couple years ago where we had a study done and did some changes. We closed 5-Station and consolidated some things,” Simson said.

The study is still on the table to this day, and Simonson believes a three to five-year study going forward should heavily focus on the future of outlying stations that have three or fewer firefighters on staff, like the Woodland location.

“The standard is four per engine company, right, and all of our busier internal companies are staffed with four now,” Simonson said.

In the meantime, Simonson is strongly focused on gender equity by working to transform old fire halls to have separate bathrooms, bedrooms and showers.

“We’ve only had women on our job since 1986. And most of our building are older than 1986.”

“When I started here at headquarters where we have 12 people stationed, it’s just a wide open dorm with a series of beds,” Simonson went on to say.

“It’s just not acceptable anymore to say you just kind of got to blend in with what we have.”

And beyond that in 2016, the department is looking to heavily push for a more diverse applicant pool by choosing character over degree.

“Realistically, we are probably 90-plus percent white male. And that’s not what our community is necessarily. Perhaps even going back to the point where we hire good people and we train them to be good firefighters rather than hire good firefighters and hope they are good people,” Simonson said.

The Duluth Fire Department is in the process of hiring a state-funded hazmat response coordinator, as the department is now the go-to for hazmat situations across the northeast portion of Minnesota.

Meanwhile, as for who will take over as the new fire chief, that will be determined by the next mayoral administration.

Simonson says he will be applying for the job.

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