Ready for the call: RFD prepares for city growth

Rachel Wick
Updated: November 14, 2019 08:08 AM
Created: November 13, 2019 07:39 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- The rapid growth of southeast Minnesota has some area fire departments planning for the future, including the Rochester Fire Department.

For Rochester Fire Captain John Bush, firefighting has always been in the cards.


"From the time I was probably 5 years old I knew that this is what I wanted to do and growing up in Rochester I knew I wanted to be on the fire department, here,” said Captain John Busch with the Rochester Fire Department.

He's climbed the ranks to captain, and is now passing on his passion for firefighting to the latest group of recruits.

"They come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some were fulltime firefighters, others have literally no fulltime fire experience," said Busch.

23-year-old Brandon Vandermarliere is one of the new recruits who saw what the Rochester Fire Department was doing and wanted to be a part of it.

“I went to school for exercise science and during my internship last summer I got to train Rochester firefighters. I had to change my path at that point," said Vandermarliere.

Vandermarliere enrolled in school at Riverland Community College. He did the work to become an Emergency Medical Technician. He received his Fire One and Fire Two state certifications. He took mental and physical tests. He interviewed among a panel of city employees. He then had to wait and see if he ranked high enough to make the cut.

"It's a long, thorough process, which I'm thankful for. It makes you really proud to be where you are. It's an honor to be here," said Vandermarliere.

From early September until November 20, Vandermarliere and four other select recruits are soaking up every ounce of knowledge to make sure they're ready for that first call.

"They're under the microscope to ensure that we have the highest level of candidates that join our department. We take the job very seriously, therefore, we want to make sure the folks that we hire are highly motivated, trained, professional members of the department," said Captain Busch.

"We've got a great fire department. The citizens respect us," said Rochester Fire Chief Eric Kerska.

Chief Kerska has more than two decades of fire experience, but working closer than ever with the city, managing a tight budget, and identifying risks to the department are proving to make his first year as Rochester's Fire Chief the most interesting.

"First risk for us was the fire marshal's office is small and we are responsible for a building from inception to demolition. With the new construction going on at a rapid pace, it means we're not getting out to existing structures and inspecting as much as we should. There are three assistant fire marshals, so we're trying to grow that department from three to five," said Chief Kerska.

Four other risks are outlined in the department's strategic plan, and like the fire marshal position, they all have to do with growth, and they all need city dollars to be funded.

"We've made the proposal in bite-sized chunks. It's based on prediction. If the growth doesn't happen, we don't ask for it. Immediate needs versus future needs,” said Chief Kerska.

And if you were to look ten years into the future, the number of stations you see around the city could grow from five to six, maybe even seven.

"We're predicting the need for two additional fire companies after 2030," said Chief Kerska.

But, filling those buildings with the people qualified for the job is becoming more challenging.

"If you were to ask me five years ago if I anticipate having trouble finding firefighters I would have said of course not. That's not true, anymore," said Chief Kerska.

Is it because of the strong economy and job market? Is it generational? There could be a number of reasons why fewer people want to be firefighters, but it could also be cultural.

"If you look at the makeup of our grade schools by race, we have to diversify if we want to survive. Some cultures view firefighting as not a sought-after occupation. Some cultures don't even consider it,” said Chief Kerska.

That's why the department is doing something that's never been done in Rochester before. Area high school students now have the opportunity to explore the career of firefighting, free of charge, get their fire one and two certifications, and earn college credits.

"We have to get the word out, and it's not going to happen naturally like it used to," said Chief Kerska.

Firefighting isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you would like to try the department recommends going on some ride-alongs, first, where you ride on an engine for the day and ask questions.

As for the department’s needs in the terms of funding, they’re asking for around $13 million, spread out, over the next ten to 20 years.

The Rochester City Council is expected to finalize the city’s 2020 budget on December 2.

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