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Merging fire services is tricky business

In January, the state started handing out money to local governments as incentives to consolidate public services with neighbors. Fire protection sharing figured prominently in the first round of 27 grants totaling $4.3 million.

But it's the lack of money, rather than the prospect of more, that should force more communities to look at service mergers, says a fire protection consultant.

"There is quite a bit of room for improvement," said Ray Riggs, former assistant fire chief for West Bloomfield Township in Oakland County and a consultant on public safety to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Riggs isn't a fan of consolidating police and fire functions -- a move taken or considered in a variety of Michigan communities -- arguing that only certain, smaller, communities are suitable for public safety departments. He notes that many fire departments already cooperate anyway, through mutual aid pacts, joint purchasing and sharing of training expenses.

According to the Michigan Townships Association, 57 percent of the Michigan townships that provide fire services have a joint fire operation with another government unit; as do 74 percent of townships that provide police services -- and 80 percent of those with ambulance services.

Riggs argues local governments could do even more. Communities could save money and boost service by merging multiple authorities into one, closing redundant fire stations and eliminating duplicated equipment such as aerial ladder trucks with their $750,000 price tags. He pegs potential savings at as much as 30 percent.

"I really think that needs to be the future," he said.

All that stands in the way, he argues, are local politics, labor issues and the inherent emotions of any community's debate over fire service.

"Good luck with that," Riggs quipped.

The cities of Lansing and East Lansing and four neighboring townships are now looking at the feasibility of forming a regional fire authority.

Samantha Harkins, a legislative associate with the Michigan Municipal League who happens to live in Lansing, said such an agreement makes sense. She lives near a fire station in Lansing -- and there's another township station less than two miles away.

"Do we really need those two fire stations?" she asked.

Randy Talifarro is Lansing's new fire chief -- and East Lansing's long-standing one. In a rather unusual arrangement, Talifarro is leading both departments as part of the exploration of how best to maximize fire protection dollars.

He concedes the challenges are plentiful.

"It's hard to take entirely different systems and mash them together," he said.

By contrast, price seems to be no object to residents of Leelanau County's Glen Arbor Township when it comes to fire protection. According to Munetrix, the 859 residents in the tony Lake Michigan tourist destination topped the state in per capita spending for fire protection at $817.

Eric Dubord, acting chief of the Glen Lake Fire Department, said few seem to mind. The department covers Glen Arbor and Empire townships, a sparsely settled area with about 2,000 year-round residents. That swells to perhaps 10,000 in summer months.

"We have a lot of high-dollar homes. The community has realized if it pays extra money and staffing, they are getting a better product."

Dubord said residents were glad to chip in to buy a $265,000, 28-foot fire boat that went into service in 2011. It gives the department the ability to fight fires on boats and wildfires near the water, as well as blazes at waterfront homes.

"It was pretty much paid for in three months," he said.

In addition to the boat, the department includes two stations, a full-time chief, three lieutenants and 15 full-time and eight part-time firefighters. Six firefighters are on duty at all times.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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