Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 12, 2014

Weber works to unify fire stations

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department's new chief has taken on the task of melding five individual township fire stations into one seamless organization.

New Fire Chief Theo Weber, formerly the Traverse City Fire Department's senior captain, began the process by redefining the rural department's command structure.

The townships of Long Lake, Green Lake, Fife Lake, Whitewater and Paradise no longer have battalion chiefs at their stations; now they have captains. Over time, the reference to township names will be erased as Weber attempts to grow the public's recognition and understanding of Rural Fire, which also provides service to Union and Grant townships and parts of Mayfield Township, and Springfield Township in Kalkaska Township.

"For years, they have operated as separate little entities, township fire departments ... instead of one department, one name," Weber said. "Those are stations of Grand Traverse Rural. That has been the case since 1989, but it's not really operated that way."

Changing the chiefs' titles was more than symbolic, it was part of a new command structure that Weber said helped the department operationally during emergencies with shorter lines of authority and more direct communication.

The township supervisors who hired Weber from a list of 51 applicants have been fairly impressed since he took over Nov. 1, said Doug Mansfield, Union Township supervisor.

"We needed somebody who could take Rural Fire to the next level," Mansfield said. "Not only for the team concept and working together, but also the financial aspect, that we are not five different stations."

Weber, 55, grew up on Old Mission Peninsula, where his father was a volunteer firefighter and his grandfather helped found the Peninsula Township Fire Department. Weber spent five years as a volunteer firefighter in Frankfort, where he owned an auto parts store and tool distributorship before he joined the Traverse City Fire Department 18 years ago.

His business background appealed to township supervisors who hired him because the agency has a tight budget, Mansfield said. Supervisors also were impressed with his experience and knowledge of the area.

Since taking the position Weber addressed budget issues, pointed out equipment shortcomings, addressed personnel issues, and visited township board meetings, Mansfield said.

"Overall, people are pretty happy right now," Mansfield said.

Weber has a long list of goals for 2014 that range from modernizing the department's computer system to creating a strong recruitment and retention program to increase the firefighter pool from 54 to 75 people.

Retention for volunteer fire departments is a major problem nationwide, Weber said. Qualification to become a firefighter requires 325 hours of basic training, regardless if the firefighter is a part-time volunteer or career professional.

"It's a very dangerous profession and very heavily regulated," Weber said. "We ask so much of them ... and in this economy with everybody trying to work two jobs or three spare jobs, there is no spare time for them to give to their community."

Weber said they will try different recruitment programs in 2014, but realistically the only way to guarantee someone's presence in a station is to pay them.

"Ultimately, that's up to the taxpayers," Weber said. "We need their input. What do they want from Grand Traverse Rural, what kind of service do they want?

"I think we need to have an open public discussion about how we staff these stations," he said.