The burning question for some Brainerd officials the past several months has been when the northeast Brainerd fire station would be operational.
In October when the city conducted an open house for its three new buildings for the police, fire and street departments, Brainerd Fire Chief Kevin Mahle said he expected the northeast fire hall to be operational by November. At that time the fire station consisted of little more than an old table and a few chairs.
Flash forward four months and the 4,800-square-foot fire station located next to Mill Park off M Street and Mill Avenue remains unstaffed.
However, the floor has been sealed and the furniture and equipment ordered. All that's left is for the telephone company to assign the station a number, for fire department staffers to finish minimal work at the station and install a fax machine and computers before a fire truck and firefighters can move in.
Mahle is expecting the station to be in operation in the next couple of weeks.
"I would be extremely disappointed if we're not running calls out of there by March 1," said Mahle.
Deb Doucette, Brainerd fire dispatcher and records clerk, worked to install the fax machine at the northeast Brainerd fire station -- one of a few small chores that needed to be completed before the fire hall is ready to be opened.
Paid on-call firefighters will be staffing the station, under the charge of Brainerd Fire Capt. Fred Eiesland. A full-time fire engineer will be responding to the station initially until a comfort level has been established with the part-timers' proficiency, said Eiesland.
"We fully expect to have some procedural bumps in the road as we proceed, but the level of fire protection will be the same as we provide from the current fire station," said Eiesland. "Will we be up to snuff? Most certainly. Will it take us some time to get confident? Definitely."
However, as Mahle, the firefighters and staffers are working to open the fire station, their progress -- or lack thereof -- has been under fire from Brainerd City Council member Bob Olson, who at the past several council meetings has questioned the chief on the northeast fire station.
Olson said he has fielded numerous calls from Brainerd residents asking why the station hasn't been opened. He said he has yet to receive an answer from Mahle.
"I think there's something wrong within the fire department on why this $800,000 station has not been operational," said Olson. "I'm not out head hunting for the chief's job. From what I know, he's an honorable man and a good firefighter, but if he does have problems within the fire department he needs to tell us so the council can address them. All I want is answers."
Olson said he wished other council members would come forward and ask questions about why the northeast fire station. Mahle said the other council members have stood behind him.
"I find it interesting that, for the most part, one council member is concerned about this and the other folks have supported us in getting the job done and getting it done right," said Mahle.
The heart of the issue has been getting the equipment and furniture in place at the new station. It wasn't until just recently that the fire department began to use the money it needed to begin that process.
Eiesland said part of the reason the opening of the station has been held up has been budgeting and part has been who would be doing what at the northeast station.
At a recent Brainerd Personnel and Finance Committee meeting, when asked by Olson, Mahle said it was never made clear to him if it was his job to equip the northeast fire hall or Construction Analysis Management's, the firm that designed the building plans for the city.
Gary Otterstad, chief executive officer of CAM, said unless it was in the original design specifications for the building projects, it wasn't CAM's responsibility to suggest or request equipment for or work on the buildings. It was CAM's job to respond to requests made by the various departments, the city council or the contractor.
Mahle has since relented from his statement about CAM.
"I don't know that there was a delay," said Mahle. "It may have been a miscommunication of when I was to proceed with (purchasing equipment)."
Olson said the money for equipping the northeast fire hall has been available since the project was approved in 2002, just as there was for the new street and police department buildings, and the certificate of occupancy was issued in July.
"That fire station could be operational without tables and chairs," said Olson.
Mahle said some equipment purchases for his department and the street department were put on hold to get the police department going. He also said that though the certificate of occupancy was issued in July, the building wasn't functional as a fire station at that time.
January and February also have been busy for the Brainerd Fire Department, with about 75 fire or emergency calls responded to with estimated losses at $380,000. In addition to his administrative job, Mahle also acts as a building inspector, fire investigator and a firefighter trainer.
Another minor setback in the opening of the station has been a protest by the union representing the full-time fire engineers and equipment operators. The union was against Mahle's decision to have the northeast station staffed with only paid on-call firefighters. The city council unanimously backed Mahle's decision. The union concerns have been resolved, Mahle said.
But Olson has been critical of Mahle not only for the delay of the northeast fire hall opening, but also for past statements made by Mahle.
Olson pointed to two memos written by Mahle in 2003 -- one Jan. 24 and the other Aug. 12 -- that are critical of the city council's lack of financial support of the fire department. Olson said those memos contradict statements Mahle made at an October city council meeting in which he said though the fire department was underfunded it was in the same situation as other city departments.
"He can't have it both ways," said Olson. "Either refute them or stand behind your memos." Olson again noted the money for equipment and furnishings had been available for months.
Mahle said he has no interest in creating controversy.
"My job is fire protection, not politics," said Mahle.
To expedite the opening of the northeast Brainerd fire station, the city council recently has approved about $150,000 for equipment purchases and advised Mahle to sit down with City Administrator Dan Vogt to work out capital equipment needs.
Olson also pointed to possible morale issues among Brainerd firefighters. Mahle said a few of his firefighters might be worried about the change.
"We're taking people out of their comfort zone and some of the staff here may be intimidated by that," said Mahle. "Change can be a good thing though."
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