Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 27, 2012

Fire Department: Call volume on the rise

By Chad Rueckert

---- — The Traverse City Fire Department has served and protected the residents and visitors of this community for over 135 years.

Our current department consists of 24 full-time members; 21 firefighter/paramedics (seven each day); a training lieutenant; a fire marshal; and the fire chief.

These firefighters work 10 24-hour shifts per month, which averages 56 hours per week without overtime. The normal firefighter works 2,912 hours per year, compared to a private-sector employee who works 2,080 hours per year.

The responsibilities of the these firefighters during a 24-hour shift include fire suppression, emergency medical response, water and ice rescue, airport rescue fire fighting, technical rescue, and hazardous material response.

Response time to fire and medical emergencies is the most important factor in saving lives and property. Last year the Traverse City Fire Department responded to 2,890 emergency calls. The majority of these emergency calls occurred during the hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with 18 percent of the total calls for service occurring during 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The National Fire Protection Association developed guidelines for firefighter and resident safety, which require a minimum of 15 firefighters to respond to a residential structure fire.

Currently, the Traverse City Fire Department initially responds with five to six personnel from two stations in the city.

This staffing level is the same as it was in 1975, when the call volume was one third of what it is today.

Even though we are proactive with our capabilities, the reduction of personnel has definitely affected our effectiveness. With the lack of personnel, the key to our effectiveness is a quick response time.

Last year we had an average response time of 3 minutes and 49 seconds, which complies with the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Association

The Traverse City Fire Department's per-capita cost is $189.41. When evaluating other comparable-size cities in Michigan, Alpena's per-capita cost is $292 and Sault Ste. Marie's is $216. When looking at resort cities in the United States, the average per capita is $291.70. Since 2009, Traverse City has been on 14 Top 10 lists and recently was ranked in the top 10 for Best Summer Trips in the world, according to National Geographic. There is not another City like Traverse City in Michigan and maybe not even in the United States.

The Traverse City Firefighters salary is slightly below the state average in our profession. While our pension is average, we have compromised with contributing 4.53 percent and reduced the pension multiplier for new-hired employees. Just as important, we are also currently contributing more then the state required medical insurance payment of 20 percent per firefighter.

Since firefighters in the Traverse City Fire Department do not pay into Social Security, many of our firefighters who have not worked in private sector jobs will not be eligible for this benefit. Those who have worked other jobs and paid into Social Security will only receive 40 percent of that benefit because they have a fire department pension.

The Traverse City Fire Department is able and willing to provide primary ambulance response in the city limits with our current staffing level. Northflight has been an excellent partner, and was instrumental in our evolution to advanced life support in the mid 90's.

However, with the Grand Traverse Region growing, call volume has increased.

Northflight provides four ambulances, not only serving Grand Traverse County, but outlying areas and counties that need Advanced Life Support.

Due to increased call volumes, the Traverse City Fire Department will be the primary advanced life support unit arriving on scene for medical emergencies the majority of the time.

By providing primary ambulance transport, the Traverse City Fire Department, can generate a substantial revenue stream, approximately $250,000, to offset projected budget shortfalls.

There would also be no start-up cost for this service and city residents would not receive an ambulance bill.

Other cities, including, Sault Ste. Marie, have taken this approach and have seen a substantial increase in revenue totaling $901,056 in 2011.

As our mission statement says, our goal is to save lives and property. The City of Traverse City has the responsibility to provide the personnel and equipment to meet this goal.

Chad Rueckert is a Traverse City firefighter.