Wayzata Police, Fire departments navigate tight labor market

The Wayzata Fire Department trains to put out a fire at Wayzata Public Works. File photo.

First responders and law enforcement officers are difficult to come by in 2022 with fewer recruits and more competition between departments.

Wayzata is experiencing this just like the rest of the nation, with the fire and police departments needing to be creative to meet the needs of the community. Meanwhile budget demands weigh heavy and the landscape of public safety continues to evolve.

Fire Chief Kevin Klapprich and Police Chief Marc Schultz discussed the challenges their departments are faced with and what they are doing to keep Wayzata safe.

Force multipliers

Chief Schultz has heard of the perception that crime is on the rise in Wayzata. While there has been an uptick in certain types of incidents across the state, Wayzata remains on par with where it has been in recent years.

Traffic complaints were among the categories to see the most significant increase in 2022. This can be attributed with more construction finishing, the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic easing and the Panoway attracting more visitors. Some may believe the Panoway is a catalyst for driving overall criminal incidents upward, but Schultz said that would be oversimplifying the facts.

“To attribute that to the Panoway is a bit unfair,” he said. “I don’t think we can attribute it to just one thing. It’s bringing a lot of people who may not have visited us before to our town. A lot of different elements changed at the same time.”

Schultz referred to the pandemic keeping people isolated from each other and inspiring more outdoor seating at restaurants. Meanwhile the nationwide turmoil stemming from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis may have encouraged people to seek activities outside of Minnesota’s most populous city.

Graffiti, property damage and thefts from vehicles were also among the more notable upward trends in calls, along with some vehicle thefts. Violent crimes, including carjackings which have become more prevalent in the Minneapolis metro were largely not seen in Wayzata though.

“In a lot of the perceptions that the public sees is what they see in the media,” Schultz said. “It doesn’t mean we’re immune to those trends. Those are indicators that trends are changing and we certainly have to deal with that.”

The police department is currently staffed with 15 sworn officers. Increased traffic, particularly from visitors, puts an added strain on the officers on duty. They cannot be everywhere at once as Schultz notes. That is why the department is constantly looking into new ways of policing. Not as a replacement for boots on the ground, but to enhance its ability to cover the community.

Automated license plate readers

One of those force multipliers is a newly implemented system of automated license plate readers. A pilot program in Wayzata started in just the last two weeks with the installation of readers which capture still images of license plates, automatically reporting if a vehicle law enforcement is looking for, such as a stolen vehicle or an owner with a warrant, enters Wayzata. Officers will be immediately notified if such a vehicle passes by the reader. This information can also be shared with other departments within the system.

Schultz said the system has already proven useful.

“We had a catalytic converter stolen off a car in broad daylight last week,” he said. “We got a still photo of the suspect vehicle and that has helped the investigation.”

The investigation is still open but the results are encouraging so far. Schultz hopes to see more readers installed by the end of the year.

Wayzata’s K9 unit

Speaking of force multipliers, the force added a K-9 unit this earlier this year. Loki, the K-9 officer, has proven to be more trustworthy than his namesake, giving the department an additional officer.

Wayzata’s K9 unit, including Sergeant Jason Gehrman & Canine officer Loki. City of Wayzata.

“If you have an officer responding to a scene and that officer is a K-9 unit, now you have two officers for some extra backup,” Schultz said. “That also allows us to help neighboring agencies if they need assistance.”

Police Department is a full time union shop

The chief looks forward to adding more officers to his roster after the council approves funding for more positions for 2023. The council is expected to move on this item by the end of the year. Once positions are opened up, Schultz know the challenge is only beginning.

“Gone are the days where we can just sit back and have applicants come to us,” he said. “We’re going out to state and regional career fairs. We’re reaching out to folks and not being so reactive to hiring opportunities. We want to be proactive. I liken it to the NCAA football recruiting style. We want to invest in them right away.”

Officers will be paid about $31 to $42 per hour in 2023 with market adjustments of 3 percent scheduled for the following years through 2025. They are hired as part of the Minnesota Labor Union.

Short fire crew

To put it simply, the Wayzata Fire Department is short on firefighters. This tracks with departments nationwide, but the department needs more firefighters and more support overall.

There are 23 firefighters in the department which is seven short of being fully staffed. Chief Klapprich estimates it has been about 10 years since the department has had a full staff and even then there may have been an opening.

Klapprich has been with the department for 44 years. His father Paul, who also served as chief, was in the department for 49 years. Kurt Klapprich, the chief’s brother, is an assistant chief and has been with the department for 40 years.

Needless to say, the Klapprich family has been instrumental in keeping the Wayzata Fire Department going and consequently keeping the community safe. Yet, due to budget constraints at the city level, Klapprich has not been hired as a full-time fire chief. You will not hear him complain. In fact, he said he feels lucky to work for the people he does.

“I don’t want trouble between the firemen and their boss,” he said. “All I can do is give them the info on ‘Here’s what I’m spending.’”

“At some point they’re not going to have a choice,” Klapprich added, referring to the decision to hire a full-time fire chief. I’m not saying I will see it. You might not see it. Personally, I think at some point there are going to have to be duty crews. It might go as far as full-time people.”

The chief reported he spends an average of 26 hours on administration per week, which does not include responding to fires, training or holding meetings.

“That 26 hours is basically keeping us floating,” he said. “With a full-time guy here there’d be a number of other things that could happen.”

Deputy City Manager Aurora Yager confirmed during a city council workshop that those hours are “just to meet the basic administrative and management duties of the position.” She also explained the need for a full-time fire chief as recommended by a 2021 department study.

Klapprich understands firefighting is a major commitment and the commitment to training might be daunting for some. The first year is the hardest in terms of training and getting up to speed. Beyond that, firefighters continue to train weekly.

Part time but on duty 24/7/365

The commitment goes beyond what happens in the fire station or on scene. Wayzata’s firefighters leave their jobs and families to respond to calls. They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year, including holidays.

The department responds to about 370 calls per year, many of which last at least a few hours. Chief Klapprich is usually at every call, and at least 9 people will respond to a call and often up to 12. That means half of the department is tied up with a call. Firefighters occasionally have overlapping calls as well, meaning they are called to another incident while already responding to something.

Klapprich said the department is getting the job done right now, but he understands how fragile the situation could be. There are as many as five firefighters who are eligible to retire with full pensions at any time. He has one person on military leave and another on medical leave.

Fire Department is part time & not union

Firefighter benefits, as described on the city’s official website, include a wage of $12 per hour for responding to calls, training and meetings. They receive a pension which pays out at a lump sum at the minimum age of 50 and a $15,000 basic life insurance policy, which the city pays for.

With a fully staffed fire department, Klapprich could see another two fire trucks hitting the streets for a call, increasing the speed at which a fire is quelled and the overall reach of the department should multiple incidents happen concurrently. The fire department does not have a union at this time.

New ladder truck on order

Speaking of fire trucks, the city council approved a purchase agreement with MacQueen Emergency for a new ladder truck on Nov. 1. The current ladder truck in use has been with the department since about 2003. According to Klapprich, the department has been seeking a new ladder truck for at least five years.

Wayzata’s current ladder truck sits in the Wayzata Fire Department. Dan Gustafson.

The ladder truck is a crucial component to effectively fighting a fire. It increases the speed at which firefighters can douse a fire with gallons of water by about four times, Klapprich said. Additionally water can be sprayed from above which can be more advantageous in some situations.

The estimated cost for a new ladder truck is about $1.5 million.

Even with the purchase agreement in place, Klapprich expects it to be another two years or more before the new ladder truck is here, due to waiting lists in the aftermath of supply shortages.

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