Local fire chiefs gather in Pine Island to discuss solutions to current issues

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Thursday night in Pine Island was an opportunity for local fire departments throughout southeast Minnesota to come together at the Pine Island American Legion and share ideas on solutions to the struggles their departments are facing.

Fire chiefs from departments including Rochester, Austin, Owatonna and Chatfield addressed some of the struggles they are facing, such as recruitment and retention.

Recruiting is a struggle across the board right now for full-time, part-time and on-call volunteer firefighters.

“How do you meet that demand to fill those spots that are being vacated? You’re just struggling to find that pool and tonight we’re going to be able to look at some of the solutions that these communities are looking at,” Pine Island Mayor and firefighter David Friese said.

Friese said the traditional method of recruitment was not working for them so the department started an Explorer Firefighter program, an idea they got from departments in the Twin Cities. The explorer program prepares Pine Island High School students for the trades, whether it be construction or the fire service.

Rochester Fire Chief Eric Kerska said has been with the department for 29 years. When he applied to RFD, he said 500 applicants showed up at the Mayo Civic Center to fill a very minimum number of jobs. He added that two years ago, 90 applicants showed up.

“The recruiting pool is shrinking. It’s concerning. We don’t have a problem yet, I just don’t want to end up there,” Chief Kerska said.

RFD has been working with Riverland Community College in Austin hosting programs each year for students to earn college credits to become a firefighter.

Other issues addressed were the costs of equipment and fire engines.

If other local fire departments were unable to attend and are looking for more information, you can visit the Southeastern Minnesota League of Municipalities (SEMLM) website.