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Cottage Grove public safety response times down

The Cottage Grove Public Safety Department is taking a unique approach to adapting to the changing times of emergency response.

For more than four decades, the department relied heavily on police to be the first on-scene, with medical and fire personnel arriving shortly after. But an aging population and high attrition rate forced the department to make a change.

Now a year after implementing a new public safety model that is turning away from a police/EMS-based system to one more firefighter/EMS driven, data shows the switch is proving to be not only a success but it has also stabilized department expenses

Each year, thousands of 911 calls filter through the county’s dispatch center, many of them directed to Cottage Grove firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police officers. While most of the calls were medical related, a police officer was often the first responder.

“We weren’t performing the police services as much as people expected because of all the ambulance calls,” Cottage Grove Police Chief Craig Woolery said. “We had a hard time trying to keep up with the turnover and keeping police/paramedics. It’s a difficult market. Not all cops want to be paramedics.”

Simultaneously, fire and medical personnel were quickly burning out from the rising amount of calls coming through the stations. Without a stable funding source to staff several full-time firefighter/EMS personnel on the clock, the department relied on part-time and on-call crews.

“A lot of these guys have families, full-time jobs,” Woolery said. “They’d be at home and have to work the next morning and receive a page at 10 p.m., midnight and 2 a.m. It got hard because they’d have to wake up at 6 a.m. for work. They were burning out.”

Recognizing the strain placed on the Public Safety Department as a whole, the Cottage Grove City Council last year authorized the implementation of a five-year strategic plan that will assist the transition to a firefighter/EMS focused system and add up to eight full-time paramedics by 2018.

It afforded the fire department to bring on full-time firefighter/EMTs, in addition to three full-time supervisors, which, for the first time in its history, turned the unit into an around-the-clock department.

“We have always had a good response time before this but I think the biggest misconception people had is that we were always a 24/7 operation,” Cottage Grove Fire Chief Rick Redenius said. “People would always say how fast we would arrive on scene. But we didn’t have full-time employees that stayed on all the time. Some would come from home.”

Currently, Wes Halvorsen, deputy chief of EMS, said the fire department staffs one full-time firefighter/paramedic during the day and three to four part-time staff every day. During the evening shift, which begins at 6 p.m., the department staffs two full-time people alongside two to three part-time bodies until midnight.

“Between 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., give or take, those are our peak hours,” Halvorsen said. “We stay busy but we start to drop off during the night after that. We try to staff during the high-volume times.”

Station 2 on 80th Street has become the unofficial hub of all fire and EMS-related incidents, and to accommodate the added full-time employees the station was outfitted with common areas, bunks and a kitchen.

Every second counts

In 2013, the city’s ambulance duty crew responded to 2,710 calls with an average response time of 5 minutes 38 seconds. About a minute later, the fire team would arrive on scene. Response times are down roughly 28 percent since 2011, when the average response time was 8 minutes 8 seconds

Woolery said every second counts.

“The first four minutes is the most crucial,” he said, using an example of a cardiac arrest. “Once you pass that mark the chances of survival drop. We can send the crew to any call and they can be there within five minutes or less.

“We have better cardiac arrest save rates than the metro or the nation,” Woolery added.

The fire department also saw a reduction in response time by 1 minute 2 seconds since 2011, precious time that Redenius said can mean the difference between containing a kitchen fire or battling a fully engulfed home.

In January, the Public Safety Department responded to an early-morning fire at a Woodland Park apartment building on Hearthside Avenue in Cottage Grove. Despite flames shooting from the second floor window of a common area, police evacuated residents, clearing the way for fire crews to come in.

“We were able to contain that fire and there was no loss of life,” Redenius said. “Our crews came in there and knocked it out when it could have been more damaging.”

Another example of how the transition has proven life-saving came when firefighters responded to a kitchen fire last winter. Redenius said two children were in the home when a toaster malfunctioned.

“It was a brisk, rapid fire that caught the cupboards on fire,” he said. “Having our duty crew in place at that time basically saved that house.”

The children were uninjured in the fire.

The transition, Woolery said, eliminated the guessing game for on-call and part-time first responders and provided a concrete schedule they could rely on.

“They know they work these hours on these days,” he said. “Adding more full-time people actually flattened out the expenses and stabilized our budget.”

The shift also allowed the police department to turn its attention back to police work and street patrol.

Earlier this year, the department formed a Criminal Interdiction and Traffic Enforcement (CITE) Unit that Woolery said will provide a new level of service to citizens. The mission of the program, he said, is to reduce the number of crime and traffic-related incidents throughout the city.

“The Public Safety Department is more than half of the city’s budget,” Woolery said. “But the level of service we are providing to our citizens isn’t found everywhere. With the ambulance service being our own, meaning we don’t contract out, and the transition to the new public safety model gives us an advantage that isn’t seen throughout the metro.”

Public relations

When the fire department isn’t responding to medical and fire-related calls, Halvorsen said downtime is used reaching out to the public.

During the spring and summer, duty crews will “cruise the community.”

“It’s really a good public relations piece for us,” Halvorsen said. “We do go out and stop by talk to the kids, buy some lemonade. The prevention piece we bring along is talking to them about changing their batteries in their smoke alarms, how to get out of the house in a fire, those kinds of things. We’re able to explain what we’re doing.”

Redenius said the departments have always made an effort to connect to the community but it has most often been relegated to city events such as Strawberry Fest. But with more staff and better resources, they have more time to engage with residents.

“We had the connection on a call-to-call basis, but this gives us a chance to interact more with people,” he said. “We want them to feel comfortable coming and talking to us.”

While the Public Safety Department continues to fine tune the transition, the fire department is also in the running for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.

The department applied for the grant in August but has not received funding yet. If awarded, the department would receive $495,000 to provide staffing resources and 100 percent funding for three entry-level salaries and benefits for two years.

To date, two rounds of grants have gone out, with Eagan Fire Department being the only recipient in Minnesota.

As the departments look through 2018, Woolery said a concentration will be placed on tweaking plans to the proposed Health and Emergency Response Occupations (HERO) Center, filling retiring personnel positions, getting the CITE Unit running and continuing to improve the Good to Great department improvement process for employees.

“A big part of the fabric of the community is the people who are serving and protecting their neighbors,” Woolery said. “They are actually responding to people whose kids play ball with them, people they go to church with. You talk about community-based, we are going above and beyond to serve our community members."