'Ignored' safety concerns prompt Princeton firefighter walkoff threat

The central Minnesota town of Princeton may be without much of a fire department next month if firefighters follow through on a threat to walk off the job.

They want new leadership because they say serious safety issues have been ignored.

Thirty-six volunteer firefighters work at the Princeton Fire Department, responding to a few hundred calls a year.

For the last 15 months, a lot of them have felt like they’ve been asked to face danger without the best possible protection.

Four Princeton firefighters saw their safety masks damaged during training last October.

"In a fire, you could be exposed to 600, 700, 800 degrees of flames and hot gases," said assistant fire chief Josh Vaccari. "If that glass fails, it's fatal."

By late December, they still weren’t fixed.

Vaccari says the chief told him they couldn’t afford repairs.

Flames also torched a few helmets, and the reflectors are still darkened.

Some uniforms are damaged, too, including one with aluminum burned into the pant legs. 

"That's going to create more of a hot spot when that starts on fire," Vaccari said.

Even the trucks have some trouble.

Vaccari says the rear emergency lights went out on Engine 5 and its speedometer often malfunctions.

For months, it went unrepaired.

"'It's not in the budget,'" Vaccari says Chief Ron Lawrence told him,

Minnesota OSHA told the city to fix the hazards after an anonymous complaint in late December.

Since then, firefighter safety concerns have eased.

"There's still some firefighter gear that needs to be repaired or replaced," Vaccari said. "But the items are starting to get addressed now since the OSHA letter came out."

But their trust in Chief Lawrence may be irreparable.

Thirty-three of 36 Princeton firefighters signed on to a vote of no confidence last month.

Vaccari says about two-thirds of firefighters are ready to walk off the job on Feb. 8 unless he’s replaced.

The chief drove away as soon as a FOX 9 crew arrived, but the city administrator sent us a statement saying, in part, "At no point in time, prior to the MNOSHA complaint, did the PFRD leadership team voice any concerns to the City Administration or the City Council, regarding safety."

There is a record of these concerns reaching the chief, though.

The administrator also sent a memo to firefighters accusing some of them of losing their focus and creating a toxic work environment.

The city has hired an outside law firm to perform a "workplace assessment" to determine if any changes are necessary at a cost to the city of up to $17,000.

"[That amount] would have been more than enough to cover the cost of the repairs that we have needed, that we've been asking for the last year," Vaccari said.

The chief also got a raise this month, which firefighters called a slap in the face.

The Princeton Fire and Rescue Department also covers a few nearby townships, but they lost a contract with Blue Hill last summer and Vaccari says a couple more townships are on the verge of finding fire help elsewhere.

The city will rely on help from neighboring departments if and when firefighters walk off the job next month.