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Wadena approves automatic fire mutual aid

Multiple departments will soon be automatically dispatched to all structure fires in the Wadena County.

After tabling the measure since January, the Wadena City Council voted unanimously April 8 to become the final municipality to join a countywide automatic fire mutual aid agreement.

“We’re the last one standing,” Fire Chief Dean Uselman told council members before the vote.

The 20-member Wadena Fire Department provides protection for the city, all of Leaf River Township and most of Wadena and Compton townships. The three townships offered verbal support for the agreement, Uselman said.   

Todd and Wadena County communities have all previously agreed to provide mutual aid in case of emergency, but fire department officials had to request it. With automatic mutual aid, dispatchers will summon the next nearest fire department as soon as a “structure fire” is reported. In those cases, the Verndale or Sebeka departments - whichever is closer to the scene - will be called to assist Wadena’s on-call firefighters - and vice versa.

When every second counts, chiefs might not realize assistance is needed until it’s too late, Uselman said. “By the time we get there, time has lapsed to the point where the fire has possibly gotten out of control.”

He referenced a barn fire along County Highway 23 that might have been contained had assistance arrived sooner.  

Ensuring public safety is all about “making sure we get the right available sources to the scene as quickly as possible,” said Sheriff Mike Carr, a volunteer Verndale firefighter whose dispatchers will administer the agreement.

“You can always turn people around, but you can never have enough when you need them there in a short period of time,” he said.

When the issue emerged last year, Uselman thought the extra protection might not be worth the costs, and the city council decided against joining up.

But a sheriff’s office analysis of fire calls from 2008 to 2013 determined the agreement would lead to an average increase of two calls per year.

To be conservative, Uselman estimated the cost of three additional calls per year and figured it would increase expenses by $1,200 per year - $151 for Compton Township, $131 for Leaf River Township, $163 for Wadena Township, and the city would pick up the rest.

“It’s worth it to have that back-up,” Uselman said. “There are certainly merits to having that call made.”

At the April 8 meeting, City Administrator Brad Swenson said he thinks the current system is working just fine.

“My whole concern is that every city involved with this has just increased their budget,” he said. “You can break it down however you want, but it’s still a cost.”

Council Member Jeanette Baymler said “it’s too bad there isn’t some way to triage these fires.”

The system we have seems to work most of the time, said Council Member Toby Pierce. “(Automatic mutual aid is) not a bad thing, but is it necessary?”

Mayor Wayne Wolden called for a one-year review of costs and quarterly status reports from Uselman. The agreement does not require renewal; the council would have to vote to rescind it.

While voicing support for the change, Wolden pointed to an automatic-mutual-aid qualifying fire the previous day in a downtown building that “could have been really bad.”

“There’s those golden minutes to put a fire out and it makes good sense to have as many departments there as possible,” Wolden said.

Automatic mutual aid will benefit smaller towns and rural areas more than Wadena, Uselman said. “We’re not pushing it on them, the other communities have been requesting it from us.”

For Verndale Fire Chief Don Weniger, the agreement is all about the increased manpower and equipment, which he said leads to a higher level of safety for his crew and the residents they serve. The slight cost increases, he said, should not be a factor.

“I have a tough time with that question,” Weniger said. “You’re putting a price on the firefighter’s life or even on the resident’s life.”

Additional fire departments also means more tankers. In his three decade career, Uselman said, he’s seen firefighters run out of water while waiting for assistance at dozens of rural blazes. “If you don’t have water, you don’t have firefighting capacity.”  

For rural resident Mark Wohlert, a Wadena Township supervisor, the benefits of additional fire protection outweigh the downsides.

“If my house is on fire, I want as many trucks on the way as possible,” he said. “The more the better.”