With work on the Southwest light rail beginning to close some roads between the lakes, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel took a drive through the Kenilworth corridor construction zone on Aug. 27 to make sure it was navigable for emergency vehicles.
“I know there are going to be challenges,” he said. “I talked to some of the construction workers out there. I saw what’s going on, I saw the trees, I saw the room. We can get a fire apparatus down that corridor.”
A few hours after surveying the corridor, Fruetel came to a joint meeting of the Kenwood and Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood associations and tried to reassure residents that his department was prepared to respond quickly to emergencies in the area despite the difficulty posed by construction and road closures.
“You folks don’t demand a lot of our service, and I love you to death for that,” he told the two dozen local residents in attendance. “I feel confident that our response times aren’t going to be impacted too badly.”
A three-week closure of Burnham Road just south of the Cedar Lake Channel began on Aug. 26. Cedar Lake Parkway is scheduled for a five-day closure starting Sept. 9, with a longer, six-month closure coming later this year.
Residents at the Aug. 27 meeting voiced concerns about the speed and vibrations of light rail and freight rail trains in the corridor, about officials’ preparedness for disaster scenarios and about the ability of firefighters to answer calls for help during construction.
Fruetel said he understood people’s frustrations, describing the challenges posed by road closures as “routine daily stuff” for his department, comparable to how Interstate 35W traffic, winter snow storms and planter boxes installed in bike lanes all present navigational difficulties for large, unwieldy firetrucks. “Traffic patterns through the neighborhood also impact us because, all of a sudden, a big red truck has to go through that same street,” he said. “We will get very creative in doing what we need to do.”
The city of Minneapolis has 19 fire stations in total, and engines from five of those stations are regularly deployed to the neighborhoods between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
Those stations are located to the north, south and east of the Kenilworth corridor: at Lake & Excelsior in West Calhoun; at 28th & Blaisdell in Whittier; on Glenwood Avenue in Harrison; at 15th Street and 1st Avenue by the Minneapolis Convention Center; and near Interstate 94 in the North Loop.
“The computer will automatically select the closest rig,” Fruetel said. If delays are expected, multiple trucks are sent simultaneously from different directions. The St. Louis Park Fire Department pitches in on larger incidents.
A four-person ladder company, usually stationed in the North Loop, will be moved to the Harrison station in the late fall or early winter, in part to provide additional support to the Kenilworth corridor during construction. Crews from the Harrison station reach the lake neighborhoods by crossing Interstate 394 on the Penn Avenue bridge; they can use the bridge even when it’s closed to motorists.
Fruetel said he’s directed crews at Station 22 at Lake & Excelsior to do “streets and routes” work in the coming months, making sure they know the best way to reach homes in an emergency.
“You’ll see Engine 22 driving around more than you probably ever have,” he said. “We’ll have them go down Burnham Road, go down 21st Street — see what the access points are, how have they changed.”
Longer term, Fruetel said he’s looking to keep his staff prepared for hazmat or catastrophic emergencies once trains begin to run in 2023. He said he wants to order newer rebreathers so rescuers can help reach people caught in the 2,236-foot Kenilworth Tunnel. And he hopes to stow a cache of rescue equipment, like medical backboards and extrication tools, at the Lake & Excelsior station.
“If something happened, god forbid, we’d have extra equipment right at Station 22,” he said. “We have to do our due diligence.”