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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William C. Plumpe
Tue, 05/22/2012 - 8:43am
HHHHHHHMMMMMMMMM. Very interesting. I am glad that Troy can accomplish this savings but aren't they a special case???Would this work as it is in a large City like Detroit???At least not in the near future---maybe twenty years down the line but not right now. Troy has a number of advantages that Detroit does not---smaller size, a better educated population, one of the highest per capita property tax bases in Southeastern Michigan---and a history of apolitical innovation. If Detroit had all these positives the City would be able to do something similar. But again citizen education and ultimately money make the biggest difference. Hopefully the City of Detroit is moving towards what Troy is today but that will take a whole lot of work, a whole lot of change and about 20 years. But maybe, just maybe we're beginning to move forward in that direction. Enough said.
Greg Gamalski
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:31pm
Volunteerism cannot run the world. As to Troy, I would like to know what the turnover is for volunteers and how the volunteer skill sets, fire fighting experience, average age and fitness matches up against career professionals and how may volunteers Troy trains later end up with full time firefighting positions in other communities over time. As a worker in a Troy high rise I take no great comfort in knowing my life could be in the hands of pre-occupied unpaid volunteer college students and part time business men and women. I don't mean to disparage the commitment, but I ask who would want to got to a hospital operating on a similar platform or scheme? I suggest that maybe we just need to generally pay for services we want and to pay more for dedicated trained professionals. It is clear people value these services. Would we staff non profit hospitals with volunteer nurses and other personnel doing part time jobs in the waiting room during quiet periods? Why not use volunteer cops like George Zimmerman to replace the police forces too then? Let's go with volunteer judges too while we are at it. As to firefighters, will volunteers be willing to take the same risks consistently as paid professionals? Can we have a volunteer militia defend our country, volunteer teachers take over the schools and volunteer postmen delivering the mail? Don't we value ourselves, our families and our children, and our communities enough to pay for valuable professional services? I can see volunteers for extras, like Little League coaches and museum docents, but for public safety on a wide spread basis? Not so much. Overall everyone agrees we get what we pay for right? I submit Troy is a a remarkable but unique situation which could not be replicated readily. I laud their tradition but is this a model for the state?
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 1:16pm
I don't think it's fair to compare a little league volunteer coach with no required qualifications to Troy Volunteer Firefighters who are required to fulfill MANY hours of training ANNUALLY in various capacities in order to be certified by the State of Michigan. They attend the academy and are probationary firefighters until all qualifications have been met.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 2:08pm
It would have been immensely helpful if the graphic had included the ISO scores for each community. It would also have been helpful to have a list of the metrics involved in computing the ISO scores. A comparison of insurance rates would have also been useful. Both of the above comments miss the point that the ISO scores are a gauge of results.