In some cities, it's cash that's burning
In Michigan, your home address says everything about how much you spend for fire protection.
In Midland, a city of 41,000, residents paid $155 per person in 2010 for their Fire Department. But in Wyoming, a West Michigan city of about 72,000, they paid less than half that, $59 per capita.
Fire departments spend about $400 million in personnel costs alone across Michigan. Costs continue to rise as the number of actual fires shrinks. As police and fire departments eat up half or more of a typical city budget, city managers and city councils across the state are beginning to look for smarter and cheaper ways to prevent fire disasters and provide front-line emergency medical care.
A Bridge Magazine review of Michigan's 50 largest communities found that the state capital of Lansing (2010 population of 114,000) has the highest per-capita fire expense, at $259. Lansing's 2010 Fire Department budget of nearly $30 million eclipsed that of Grand Rapids (population 188,000), which got by on about $25 million. Grand Rapids' per capita spending worked out at $122.
The cost breakdown was compiled by Munetrix, a Web-based municipal data consultant that based comparisons on spending figures reported by municipalities to the state Treasury Department. While Munetrix did not establish a statewide fire protection spending figure, Census Bureau data from 2010 pegged Michigan's personnel spending at $400 million.
The average Michigan firefighter was paid $5,122 per month in 2010, the Census Bureau reports -- well below the national average of $5,747, and only about half of highest state average, California's $9,649.
Some experts find more than mere statistical curiosity in the variety of Michigan's fire protection figures.
Leonard Matarese, a public safety consultant for the International City/County Management Association, sees room to trim costs in departments across the state without sacrificing service.
"The down time in fire departments continues to be significant," Matarese said. "Whether it's a combined public safety department or consolidating smaller departments into a larger department, there is great interest now in challenging some of the previous prevailing concepts about how these departments are staffed."
Fires nationwide are down more than 50 percent in recent decades, with 482,000 reported in 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 1977, the figure was 1.1 million.
Michigan has seen a similar trend, with fires falling from 82,297 in 1977 to 33,421 in 2010. Between 2010 and 2011, property damage from fire dropped from $686 million to $588 million.
Fire department officials are quick to note factors they assert skew costs and complicate direct comparison among departments. These include the age of structures protected, their proximity to each other, square mileage to be covered, the extent of industrial development or high-rise buildings, the percentage of smoke detectors and even the socioeconomic status of a community's residents.
Departments staffed by full-time firefighters cost more than those manned by volunteers or paid on-call firefighters. Some fire departments do not respond to medical emergencies. A full-time department typically has quicker response times than a typical volunteer unit. And salary and pension costs vary widely by jurisdiction
It is what amounts to the ultimate local issue, but one with no clear guidelines for staffing or best practice. Indeed, State Fire Marshal Richard Miller says communities are on their own as they decide how to staff and operate the 1,062 fire departments in Michigan. Just a handful of the departments mandate minimum staffing levels.
"There is no state law that says you have to do this, you have to do that," Miller explained.
Given that, consultant Matarese says departments should question traditional models for providing fire and emergency medical service. He said layoffs need not equate to diminished service:
"We don't see any evidence of a reduction in service even though the head count has already been reduced significantly."
A former police chief, director of public safety and city manager, Matarese has consulted with departments across the country. He has helped some combine police and fire into one department and advised others in sharing services with neighboring departments
He is currently advising Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming as they explore ways to share services and cut costs. In 2011, he hosted a delegation from Sweden studying consolidation for its rural communities as it toured five Michigan consolidated departments.
From fire to 'public safety'
One alternative to the traditional city fire department is a "public safety" department, with personnel trained to serve as police officers, firefighters and even EMS techs. According to the Michigan Municipal League, some 50 Michigan communities are protected by these multi-purpose agencies.
Grosse Pointe Shores pioneered the practice in 1911, when its Department of Public Safety became among the first combined police and fire departments in the nation.
"I don't think there is anyone saying they should go back to what they had," said Matarese, who projects savings of 20 percent from a typical consolidation of police and fire.
These efficiencies relate to the tempo of an average fire department. In a study of the St. Joseph Fire Department, for example, firefighters responded to fire calls an average of 33 minutes a day. The argument made by Matarese and others is that more uses can be found for the personnel.
But Matarese has found that this isn't just a matter of numbers.
"It's not a question of whether it can work, it's largely a political labor issue," he said.
In 1995, Meridian Township, a large suburb of Lansing, started a public safety department. Two years later, it went back to separate police and fire departments.
Township Manager Jerry Richards said it was difficult to hire and train officers to do police, fire and emergency medical service work:
"That didn't work out very well. There was a lot of animosity and friction in the community at that time."
In May 2011, voters in Jackson rejected a proposed merger of police and fire by nearly a 2-1 margin. Firefighters campaigned aggressively against it. The city subsequently slashed the Fire Department in half in the face of a budget deficit.
Voters also rejected a public safety department in Harper Woods in suburbanDetroit. The proposal had been a contentious issue since 2008, when the city tried to create a public safety department and cross-trained 16 of the city's 37 police officers.
Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, says police-fire consolidations typically leave communities with diminished fire services.
Cities that train police to fight fires are "balancing their budgets at the expense of their fire services," Docherty said. "It's a system that doesn't work. Nobody can prove it saves money and creates better service."
Docherty argued the ICMA is biased toward the creation of public safety departments, adding the group "tells the city manager what he wants to hear."
Docherty said a union study of Kalamazoo, which formed a public safety department in 1983, found the city would actually save money if it returned to separate police and fire departments.
Trends intersect in Wyoming
As for the huge cost differential between Midland and Wyoming, Docherty notes that Midland is responsible for fire protection for the sprawling Dow Chemical operations. It relies on a full-time staff of 42 firefighters and three stations to cover 36 square miles.
Wyoming has three stations, 22 full-time and 22 part-time on-call firefighters and 26 square miles to cover. Its on-call firefighters respond to emergency calls from home or work and serve as back-ups to rotating shifts of two lieutenants, one equipment operator and five firefighters.
"Wyoming is horribly staffed," Docherty asserted.
Wyoming Fire Chief Robert Austin said the department makes do with what taxpayers are willing to pay. He noted the department has used on-call firefighters since the city formed in 1959.
Austin said he would like to restore the full-time firefighter corps to 33, the level of a decade ago, but fiscal reality dictates otherwise.
"Nobody likes to pay more taxes,"Austinsaid.
Fire staffing came under scrutiny in Wyomingi n April, when just five firefighters were immediately available to fight an apartment complex blaze -- a situation a battalion chief called a "near worst case scenario."
Mayor Jack Poll said the city was fortunate everyone was rescued from the building and half the 24 units in the building saved.
"We had wonderful results with no loss of life," Poll said.
Midland and most of Wyoming have identical fire response ratings of 3 from the Insurance Services Office, a national ranking system used by the insurance industry. A "1" rating is tops on a scale of 1 to 10.
While insurance firms make no judgment about what is right for a given community, Meghan Cass of Allstate Insurance Company said the evaluation of the Insurance Services Office can make a 20 percent difference in homeowner premiums.
"The faster a fire department can respond, the less risk for the homeowner of ultimate loss," Cass said. "Homeowners living in communities with effective fire departments have less risk of a major fire loss and their premium reflects this."
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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