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Troy's hybrid force keeps fire costs in check

Troy, an Oakland County city of 80,000, has pioneered an approach unique in Michigan for urban fire departments.

Its department relies on a force of about 170 volunteers, augmented by 10 career firefighters. With six stations, it reaches 87 percent of fires within 10 minutes.

Troy earns a fire protection rating of 3 from the Insurance Services Office, a 1 to 10 rating scale used by insurers in which 1 is ranked highest. It does this for $53 per capita, far below the cost of neighboring departments with full-time fire staffs such as Southfield ($203 per capita) or West Bloomfield ($141 per capita). Southfield has an ISO rating of 3, while West Bloomfield is rated a 4.

Part of the cost difference is explained by the fact Troy does not respond to medical emergencies, as do many nearby departments. It budgets about $500,000 a year to an independent contractor for that, which would bring its total budget to just under $5 million and its per-capita average to $59.

Bridge graphic: Per capita fire protection costs for Michigan's 51 largest communities

Troy Fire Chief William Nelson believes his department has proven itself a viable, cost-effective alternative for urban departments. It has been mostly volunteer in Troy since 1940, a culture he says is "woven into the thread of the community. We have great-grandsons of charter members who are volunteers today."

West Bloomfield Fire Chief Jay Wiseman said his department's ISO rating of 4 is largely due to the fact it doesn't have hydrants in a portion of the community. He notes that West Bloomfield bests Troy's response times by reaching the scene of fires within 10 minutes 98 percent of the time.

He credits Troy with being "very smart with their dollars," but he asserts his department can quickly "assemble 15 firefighters with a command officer" and have them on scene, compared to a volunteer department that might have "one guy in a truck" arrive first and wait for others to show up. Each could be credited with the same response time.

In Troy, Nelson said volunteers are in the station about 30 percent of the time an alarm goes off, in part because the city makes stations an inviting place to be. Each is allotted $60,000 a year to pay for items like comfortable couches or flat-screen TVs. Pop machines dispense free soda. Each has wireless internet. There are funds for family outings, such as trips to a Detroit Tigers game.

"We want to make it a place where they want to spend time," Nelson said. "College students go there to study. Others go there for computer access. Self-employed use the fire station as place of business. When a fire comes, they are right there."

To encourage a long-term commitment, Troy volunteers can earn a pension of  $18,000 a year if they stick with it for 30 years for a responsibility that requires some 100 hours a year in training and carries life-threatening risks.

"It's a community culture," Nelson said.

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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