Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 25, 2013

Newsmakers: City fire department elimination awaits study


---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.

TRAVERSE CITY — A proposal to turn Traverse City’s fire protection over to the area’s largest fire department continues to smolder, and officials are waiting to determine whether a study can rekindle consolidation talks.

Mayor Michael Estes led the cost-cutting effort to disband the Traverse City Fire Department in favor of Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, an agency primarily staffed by part-time firefighters who serve three surrounding townships.

The contentious issue was at the forefront of city election campaigns this year, but quickly moved to the back burner as community leaders await a study that’s due in March.

“This is an issue that everybody is holding their comments close because they want to see what this consultant says,” said Pat Parker, chief of Metro Fire. “We are keeping our minds open, as well.”

Township officials chose Oregon-based Emergency Services Consulting International to conduct the study at a cost of $45,251. The consultants have begun collecting data from the city and Metro Fire, with site visits planned at the end of January. Officials from East Bay, Acme, and Garfield townships who comprise the authority board that oversees Metro Fire chose to fund the study themselves with the help of a $11,300 state grant.

“We wanted the city to be part of it, but we didn’t want it to be city-focused,” said Chuck Korn, Garfield Township supervisor and chair of the Metro Fire board. “We want a study on this particular merger, as well as a template for making merger decisions in the future. A lot of stuff is in flux right now.”

Whitewater Township officials recently met with Metro officials to discuss the possibility of joining Metro Fire or contracting for services.

Ron Popp, Whitewater’s supervisor, said as the community’s population ages officials want to update the township’s medical response from basic to advanced life support. Officials at the moment are just looking at options, he said.

Metro firefighters are trained in basic life support, but the agency has an agreement with North Flight Emergency Medical Services for advanced life support services.

Traverse City hosts a fire department; all of its members are full-time firefighters and most are paramedics trained in advanced life support. The city fire department also has its own ambulance equipped to supply advanced life support.

Consolidation opponents argue a move to Metro Fire will reduce the level of medical response.

Estes said he’s not offended that Metro Fire officials decided to exclude the city from any control of the study. He called it a wise decision for Metro Fire to consider the impact other requests for expansion may have on its operations. It also saved the city the expense of funding the study.

“So they are the controlling authority and we need to wait for them to make a proposal to us,” Estes said. “But no matter what happens, I plan to bring to light to the city commission that we have other alternatives.”

Estes said when the city begins budget discussions, likely in March, he will ask commissioners to consider changing the department to a combination of part-time and full-time personnel or cross-train with the police department so police officers also could serve as firefighters.

“But I still believe the best venue that we could have for fire protection services is (that) Metro is the controlling authority and the city is part of that, because I believe that consolidates those services most effectively,” Estes said.

Whether the new city commission agrees remains unknown. Estes lost his chief ally on the topic when Commissioner Mike Gillman did not seek re-election. New Commissioner Ross Richardson steadfastly opposes eliminating the city’s fire department, but the other two new commissioners, Tim Werner and Gary Howe, left themselves wiggle room in their campaign positions.

They, like everyone else involved, will wait for the study.