The Park Rapids City Council voted Aug. 27 to refer an update of the fire department’s organizational handbook to administrative staff to rework specific areas of concern.

The previous version of the handbook was approved in December 2012. City Administrator John McKinney said city staff and fire department personnel worked together on the update, and the personnel committee forwarded it to the city council with no recommendation.

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years,” Fire Chief Terry Long told the council.

Long said the revised handbook replaces the executive committee, consisting of the fire chief and three members appointed by him, with a board of officers, including the fire chief, two assistant chiefs and two members.

He explained that this makes the board more accountable to the firefighters because the chief and assistant chiefs are elected by the department’s membership.

“So, they have a little more say in that,” said Long, than “the previous board (that) could be appointed simply by the chief.”

Pension tied to attendance

Another change, he said, puts “teeth” in the department’s attendance policy, requiring firefighters to respond to at least 45 percent of calls during the calendar year. Firefighters not meeting this quota will not be credited for that year of service toward their relief association pension.

At the same time, however, the attendance policy was relaxed from the previous version, which required firefighters to attend at least 75 percent of calls per year. Long said this was not a realistic expectation.

The lower percentage, he said, reflects the policies of fire departments with a comparable number of members, size of coverage area and number of annual calls, and 45 percent attendance is higher than some departments require.

Council member Erika Randall questioned why the revised policy does not attach the same consequences to failing to meet the 75 percent attendance required for department meetings and training.

Second Assistant Fire Chief Bob Meier responded that he thought the handbook’s definition of “members in good standing” covered that and acknowledged it could be stated better.

‘Active retired’ members

Randall also pointed out that the revised handbook’s language giving “honorary” and “lifetime” firefighters to access the fire hall poses a liability to the city.

“I’m not comfortable with this,” she said. “This is just too broad.”

Long said his intention was to start a retired firefighters’ group and encourage them to help, for example, by washing trucks, taking food deliveries and watching the fire hall when on-duty personnel are out on a call.

“We still use these guys quite a bit,” said Meier, calling them an asset to the department. He suggested designating them as part-time employees or an “active retired” unit, with access to the fire hall “under city guidance.”

Noting that upcoming security upgrades will end non-city employees’ free access to city buildings, Randall said, “This isn’t because I don’t think that these people have earned it or that they haven’t been a great access to the fire department.”

She suggested reworking the policy language to allow the department to utilize non-paid volunteers, and make sure “that there is something on file with the city about who these people are, and what kind of paperwork they fill out.”

Randall suggested having the city attorney draft language that protects the city from liability while letting those people help.

Council member Tom Conway moved to send the revised handbook back to staff to address these issues. The motion passed without dissent.