Rockford Fire Department pitches reserve program to council

About two-thirds of the current Rockford Fire Department are pictured. The department has 33 spots and is considering adding a reserve group for additional manpower and future hires.
About two-thirds of the current Rockford Fire Department are pictured. The department has 33 spots and is considering adding a reserve group for additional manpower and future hires.

The Rockford Fire Department presented its 2013 Year End Review to the Rockford City Council at its Feb. 25 meeting, as well as a new proposal to cost-effectively increase manpower and pre-qualify, and train, future members of the department.


Rockford Fire Department Chief Ben Sanderson reported that the department received 322 calls in 2013. Any time the pager goes on, he said, was considered a call for this count. Medical calls came in high in at 217, and fire calls had a significant bump at 28. There were 11 car accidents with injuries that the department responded to, one with a fatality. Department member training and meetings logged more than 4,000 hours collectively, not inclusive of participation in community events like River Days.

To date, the department had received 43 calls, many related to falls caused by snow and icy conditions.

At the conclusion of his fire report, Sanderson moved into his proposal for a reserve team of firefighters.

He said these programs were in practice in conjunction with fire departments in Albertville, St. Michael and Monticello and that he’d made some calls to get a better understanding of how they worked. The information he gathered was positive and he stated that a firefighter reserve program could be a great fit for the Rockford department for a number of reasons.

Adding as many as 10 reserves would increase manpower with very little financial commitment from the city. The reservists would receive Firefighter I and Firefighter II training and, possibly, additional training if they show potential in coming onto the paying roster.

“Bare bones is you get more man hours with no pay,” Sanderson said. The department just recently started paying its members on a nominal per-call basis, and members are eligible for a pension.

Sanderson told the council that, due to schedules and conflicts, about half the current members show up on calls. Adding a reserve team of 10 would presumably result in an additional five members at a call.

“We’re burning out the 15 people who can show up to calls as it is,” he said.

He went on to explain that the reservists would be trained and treated no differently than the other department members with the exception of pay. They would be expected to show up to calls, attend meetings and training as frequently as possible and perform the job to the same level as paid members. They would also be first in line to step into paying positions on the department as they open up, judged on merit and demonstrated commitment.

“These guys are ready to go. You have a paying spot that opens up on the regular roster, they’re trained. You don’t have to wait for them to be trained, you don’t have to wait for their knowledge. They’re able to get on a truck and work every call right now.” He added that putting applicants in the reserves to start gives them the opportunity to prove that they are interested in joining the department for all the right reasons.

The city and Fire Department reached an agreement to fund a department of 33 firefighters about eight years ago. One position is open at this time, and Sanderson has received several applications. The reserves, he said, would be a good way to utilize interested applicants, getting them through training and using them at calls sooner rather than later. He pointed out that this would be a good time to implement the program as calls are on the rise and new building is picking up in Rockford as well and the department’s service areas of Greenfield and Rockford Township.

Councilor Denise Kesanen asked Sanderson if having paid and unpaid members working together would create a teamwork issue. Sanderson said that this did not appear to be the case for the departments who have reservists. He said that the facts are clearly spelled out in the application process, so those interested would know what to expect. He added that the expectation of being added to the paying roster was a good incentive that would likely keep reservists active and committed. He also added that those on the paying roster who were not showing up regularly to calls and meetings were not getting the financial benefits they qualified for anyway, and a merit-based scenario could be useful in putting the right people in the right positions.

Mayor Renee Hafften cautioned Sanderson to build some kind of a weighting system into the promotional piece of the proposal to make sure the process was transparent and not subject to any suspicions of discrimination or favoritism.

Councilor Jeannette Graner explained that the department had new software in place that logged everything its members did and made biannual previews fact-based and easily accessible.

Asked if the proposed reserve team was his preference over hiring additional firefighters, Sanderson stated that it was, in part due to financial efficiency.

There will be some costs associated with getting the reserve program on its feet, including additional workers compensation insurance fees and training for hours not covered by grants, should that be the case sometime in the future, and the council asked that Sanderson return with an approximation to continue the conversation.

No council action was taken.

The next regular meeting of the Rockford City Council is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, at Rockford City Hall, 6031 Main St.