Mandan Fire Department is understaffed, retention an issue

MANDAN, N.D. - The bigger a city gets, the more services it needs.

And that includes firefighters.

The Mandan Fire Chief says they’re understaffed.

A big conversation is how other agencies have better benefits and pay over Mandan.

City records show comparatively Bismarck firefighters will earn between $49,000 and $73,000. Their health insurance is paid in full by the city.

In Mandan, firefighters get paid between $42,000 and $65,000.

When it comes to family health insurance, the city pays a percentage but it takes 7 years for a firefighter to get full coverage.

"We've increased but it's still not enough," said Steve Nardello, Mandan fire chief.

A fight Nardello saw firsthand during the apartment fire in July.

Your News Leader requested documents on the fire at Sunset Bluffs. They show the department had a two full staff employees, a captain and a part time employee working that day. Those four employees and Nardello were the first on scene.Thirteen minutes in, they had nine firefighters who came into work.

As more Mandan firefighters showed up, the department still needed to request assistance from other agencies.

Records show the department currently has 17 full-time employees and 31 part-time firefighters.

"Part timers, we have a lot on our roster but that doesn't necessarily mean you’re going to get all them when you have a fire," said Nardello.

Nardello says retention is an issue.

"Quality of life is different for everybody. A little bit of it is pay, a little of it is insurance. We try to have a good culture here at work but I think the difficulty always comes. The fire department can control a lot of those. But there's certainly things that are always out of our control. That's one of the hard parts. Sometimes we need help from the city or other organizations to improve categories that Chief Nardello feels need to be improved that it may not be within our direct control," said Andrew Beck, Mandan firefighter and EMT.

But city officials say it's difficult to give all agencies what they want or need because of monetary strains.

"How do you get that balance there. It's just not in the cards to continue paying high benefits and provide high salaries at the same time. I don't think Bismarck could even do that," said Dennis Rohr, Mandan Commissioner with Public Safety portfolio.

Nardello says they've lost experienced firefighters to agencies with better benefits.

"We're always busy. But there's some people that feel that we shouldn’t be doing that. We shouldn’t be doing EMS calls and that's what firefighters nationwide are doing," said Nardello.

The National Protection Association standards say there should be four firefighters per engine, right now Mandan has two, sometimes one.

Rohr says national standards made for bigger areas can't apply to a smaller city like Mandan.

Nardello says the four-firefighter standard is important because of their two in two out practice. Two people in a building, two people outside ready to save them or take over.

Nardello has also been requesting a third fire station for Mandan for several years.

Rohr says a city like Mandan only needs two but because the layout of the city is elongated a third one wouldn't be a bad idea.

Rohr adds that it's a costly projected and if they can't man the building then there's no point for it.