Rochester Fire Department personnel take an oath to become city employees for the first time in the department’s history during a special swearing-in ceremony Feb. 13.

Rochester Fire Department personnel take an oath to become city employees for the first time in the department’s history during a special swearing-in ceremony Feb. 13.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Rochester Fire Department changes to cut response times in half

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 19, 2019


ROCHESTER — The Rochester Fire Department is making some big changes in 2019.

For the first time in the department’s history, the city’s firefighters are now city employees.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said the department was originally organized as an “association” in the city charter.

“It was the Fire Department Association that provided the firefighters to the city to provide fire protection. So, since the early 1960s, when the village became the city of Rochester, the Fire Department’s only city employee was the fire chief,” he said. “What it really means is, for all these years, the firefighters here, being with the association, have been — in essence —  a contracted employee.”

During its Jan. 28 meeting, the Rochester City Council unanimously voted to change the way the department is organized by allowing the city to directly employ firefighters.

The council also approved including fire employees in its nonunion employee benefits and established a set of guidelines for the city’s fire employees.

The biggest change, according to Cieslik, is that while the association used to bill the city and then pay the firefighters, now the city will pay the firefighters directly.

Mayor Rob Ray said the move has been a long time coming.

“It’s a formality that the world around us has changed, and we need to adjust the permanent staffing to support the volunteer firefighters that we’ve had forever,” Ray explained.

“I’m very excited at having our own staff,” Councilwoman Ann Peterson said.

Until recently, the Rochester Fire Department had been operating as a paid-on-call, volunteer department. The staff included a full-time fire chief; three full-time, dual-certified firefighter/EMS personnel — with one at the station on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and 38 paid-on-call volunteers made up of 25 dual-certified firefighters and EMS personnel, 10 firefighters and three EMS workers.

Cieslik was the Fire Department’s only city employee.

Rochester’s three full-time firefighter/EMS personnel were contracted employees via Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service Inc., and the city’s 38 paid-on-call firefighters worked for the city via the association.

In the event of a fire, the chief and the one on-duty EMS worker/firefighter would respond to the scene, and then they would call paid-on-call volunteers in to assist, which caused a response time of up to 15 minutes due to paid-on-call volunteers living farther from the station than in the past; unpredictable paid-on-call response; and the growth of the city, with many newer neighborhoods located farther away from the Fire Department than in years past.

In an effort to reduce response times, the Fire Department recently made the move to become a “hybrid” department, according to officials, with a combination of full-time and part-time staff.

The change in structure was made possible, in part, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s $2.4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — grant, which will allow the city to hire 15 full-time-equivalent firefighters. The grant will be paid out to the city over three years.

The new staffing model means six dual-certified firefighters/EMS workers will be at the station at all times — four or five full-time employees and one or two part-time staffers, in addition to the fire chief — to reduce the commute time to the station to zero and the response time to seven minutes or less. It also means an additional 38 part-time firefighters will be able to help during major incidents.

“This is transformational for the city in the sense that our response times should drop,” said City Manager Blaine Wing. “We’ve always had excellently trained volunteers; now we are going to be supplementing them with highly trained part-time and full-time employees, so the level of service that the community is going to be getting is going to be a faster response time.”

Cieslik said the majority of the department’s paid-on-call firefighters filled out applications and went through the approval process to be hired as either full-time or part-time city employees.                                     

“We wanted to keep our part-time firefighters engaged,” he said. “In essence, they have been providing fire protection for the city for over 120 years, so we didn’t want to put them to the side, because they are still a vital part of the city’s fire protection.”

The new fire staff members were sworn in as city employees during a special ceremony Feb. 13, and they officially began working as city employees Feb. 15, the first day the SAFER grant funding was available to the city.

For more information, call the Rochester Fire Department at (248) 651-4470.