Nineteen Minneapolis Fire Department cadets are training in Northeast Minneapolis this week, representing the top of a field of more than 1,200 candidates.
To get there, they completed a timed physical agility test that involved swinging a sledgehammer to simulate forced entry, and climbing a stair-stepper while holding 75 pounds without touching the railing for balance. They underwent a department interview, background check, medical exam and psychological exam.
For many, the cadet class is the culmination of years of work. Jared Moore, a Life Time Fitness manager, said he applied to become a firefighter several years ago and didn’t make it past the first round. This time, he’s one of the top 19 recruits. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he grew up near the station on Lowry Avenue North.
“I’m looking forward to all of the training,” he said.
Nearly 300 other finalists wait on a ranked list to enter cadet training. Fire Chief John Fruetel said the list will likely stand for the next two years, and chances are high that many of their names will be called. He expects significant attrition as firefighters retire over the next three-five years.
A thousand-plus applicants is not an unusual number for the Minneapolis Fire Department, which currently holds 429 employees. The last time the department recruited in 2013, nearly 5,000 people picked up applications and nearly 3,000 people applied, Fruetel said. When the economy takes a downturn, more people consider firefighting, he said.
“There is a lot of stability in this career,” he said.
He recalled that when he joined in 1979, there were 1,800 applicants.
“A lot of folks just want to serve their communities,” Fruetel said.
Cadet Romel Bacon enrolled in the EMS Pathways Academy in 2016. He previously worked as a chef and trained at Le Cordon Bleu, and he was looking for a career change.
Cadet Mallory Cramer previously worked at a Chevy dealership in Bloomington. A South High School alum and longtime basketball player, she knew she wanted a physical job that required working with her hands.
“I just went for it,” she said.
Historically, not everyone graduates from the cadet training program, although Fruetel suspects the current class will have no problem. He said some cadets discover that firefighting isn’t for them.
“All of a sudden you put on a breathing apparatus and you’re a little more claustrophobic and a little more afraid of heights than you thought,” he said. “That’s why we have that process.”
During a tour of the Emergency Operations Training Facility in Northeast Minneapolis, Staff Captain Stephanie Johnson, a Kingfield neighborhood resident, cautioned the cadets not to bring any firefighting clothing home to their families.
Firefighters work in increasingly dangerous environments, Fruetel said, as more plastics and synthetic materials in homes generate carcinogenic byproducts. Firefighters routinely encounter diesel exhaust, asbestos, carbon monoxide and benzene, and the International Association of Fire Fighters reports that cancer is now the leading cause of death for firefighters.
The days of black, soot-covered helmets are gone, Fruetel said.
“We’ve changed the procedure on how we clean our gear,” he said.
Technology advances represent the biggest change to the department in recent years, he said. The breathing apparatus, for example, now features built-in thermal imaging to assist in rescue searches. Operating procedures and command structures have also improved safety.
Fruetel said the current cadet class is 52 percent people of color and 15.8 percent female. Fifty-seven percent are veterans.
A 1970 lawsuit alleging employment discrimination resulted in a federal court order to diversify the Minneapolis Fire Department; court oversight continued until 2000.
Fruetel said he’s worked hard to diversify the department.
“That’s easy to say, but I want to make sure we get that done,” he said. “… A lot of the female firefighters I trained are retiring.”
The department eliminated the written exam this year, and the recruiting process emphasizes skills like fluency in a second language.
Every cadet class now includes 30 percent from the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Pathways Academy, where graduates receive Emergency Medical Technician certification as part of a paid program. The program launched in 2016 as a partnership between the Fire Department and Hennepin County Medical Center with funding from the Minneapolis Foundation and support from Project for Pride in Living.
“It gives young adults the opportunity to consider a career they may not have considered before,” Fruetel said. “…I can’t think of anything better than to recruit someone out of North Minneapolis and have them come back into the community and come take care of that community.”