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Fire District wins BIG

It’s a happy day for the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD).

Out of nearly 300 applicants across three states and 23 Native nations, CAFD is one of nine organizations to be awarded the inaugural Bush Prize for Community Innovation — officially announced today, Dec. 19 — which comes with a cash prize of $500,000.

For CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder, the half a million dollars is the icing on the cake. It is the validation offered by the award that means the most. (Winners were selected by advisory committees made up of community representatives from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.)

“All the communities involved in the fire district made some really hard decisions to get here,” said Schroeder, who replaced the district’s first fire chief, Jim Langenbrunner, two and a half years ago. “They gave up some local control. It cost more initially for some townships [than the previous fire service]. But being recognized by the Humphrey School (CAFD received a Local Government Innovation Award from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in 2011) and now the Bush Foundation, it shows we’re headed in the right direction.

“What we’re doing is making a difference not just locally, but statewide,” he added. “It really is the direction government services need to look as they move forward into the future.”

Planning for the district started in 2006 after an independent review stressed the need for cooperative emergency services in order to meet the current and future emergency service needs for the region. Although a total of seven different fire departments were involved in the initial discussions, in the end Cloquet and Perch Lake made the commitment to move forward and Scanlon joined later.

CAFD was established on Jan. 1, 2010, by legislative action. It is the largest combination fire and EMS transport provider north of the Twin Cities and was the first independent Fire/EMS District in Minnesota. In addition to the three member communities, CAFD provides structural fire protection to the Fond du Lac Reservation, which adds up to a total of 170 square miles of fire protection coverage. CAFD also provides advanced life-support ambulance service to a state-mandated service area of more than 250 square miles of Carlton County and southern St. Louis County.

In a time of decreased aid to local governments from the state as well as shrinking property tax revenues, its inception preserved the high quality of emergency and fire services that has been a tradition in the area since the Fire of 1918.

The Bush Foundation highlighted the fact that the merger has allowed for efficiencies and greater response and the creation of a public education program that includes fire safety kits for public education and safety training classes that were not previously available in the region. Fire District staff also received training from tribal citizens on cultural competency to ensure it works respectfully with Native communities during an emergency.

The district’s focus on involving people from many different communities in the county — its inclusiveness and commitment to long-range planning from the start — helped it rise to the top of the hundreds of applications.

“The collective record of accomplishment of the Bush Prize winners is a testament to what can be achieved by intentionally, thoughtfully and continuously engaging the community in the problem-solving process. Each organization has established a culture of innovation that has led to positive impact in their community,” said Bush Foundation President Jennifer Ford Reedy. “The Bush Prize not only provides the winners with resources to support their work, our hope is that it also inspires others to think differently about how to approach problem-solving in their community.”

According to a Bush Foundation press release, the Bush Prize honors and supports organizations with a proven record of creating innovative solutions to address community challenges and opportunities. Their innovations must be developed through inclusive, collaborative processes focused on making the most of community assets and must be more effective, equitable or sustainable than existing approaches.

One reason the Foundation selected CAFD was the district’s use of public meetings to get feedback on service and planning.

“When it comes to community innovation, we believe process matters. The best way to achieve innovation is by involving the community every step of the way,” said Molly Matheson Gruen, the Bush Foundation’s community innovation manager. “It was heartening to see so many organizations and communities across the region that are working to improve quality of life for their citizens in a way that ensures all voices are heard and that the solutions will endure.”

As for the money, Schroeder said the district again will be calling on community members to help them decide how to spend it. Under the conditions of the grant, it cannot be used to simply replace a portion of the existing budget. The funds must be used to further the mission of the fire district and enhance district operations.

“We are definitely going to embark on a master planning process with community input that can take us through the next five, 10, even 20 years,” Schroeder said. “And we want to make some equipment purchases that will make all our stations uniform, something we haven’t been able to afford yet.”

This isn’t the first grant for CAFD — since its creation CAFD has been awarded a total of $936,750 in federal grants, which includes two mobile training trailers unique to Northeast Minnesota — but it is the largest single grant and comes with the fewest strings attached.

“You know, this [money] really does give us the ability to really think outside the box and reach out, really maximize the impact of the grant money,” Schroeder said. “Not just with the district, but within the whole region.”

That is precisely what the Bush Foundation would want to hear.

In fact, here’s what Bush Foundation officials had to say about CAFD:

“With an engaged community, strong leadership and an inclusive and bold vision for the region, the Cloquet Area Fire District has become a pioneer in Minnesota with an award-winning, replicable model and the potential for its work to change the landscape of rural emergency and service provision for the better.”

Schroeder said he looks forward to working with the Bush Foundation officials and tapping into their expertise to make “the greatest community impact.”

About the Bush Foundation

The Bush Foundation invests in great ideas and the people who power them. The Foundation was established in 1953 by 3M executive Archibald Bush and his wife, Edyth, and today works in communities across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geographic area. Learn more at The Bush Prize and Community Innovation Grant program are open to all 501(c)3s and government agencies operating within the region served by the Bush Foundation.