Ann Arbor fire chief heavily critical of city in new letter to City Council, decries looming cuts
In a new letter to the Ann Arbor City Council, departing Fire Chief Dominic Lanza criticized the city for reducing staffing in the fire department to potentially dangerous levels.
Lanza said last month he was resigning from his post after a year on the job for personal reasons. Had it not been for that, Lanza wrote today, he would have left for the "lack of support" and the "systematic destruction" of the department.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Lanza's resignation last month was to be effective March 25.
"Public safety, while costly, is the most important service that government must provide," Lanza wrote. "Ann Arbor Fire Department is at a point where public safety is jeopardized. Our city is full of homes and commercial structures that were built over 100 years ago; they have questionable wiring and lack current safety standards built into the codes."
Lanza's letter comes as the city is considering deep cuts to the fire department over the next two years. The city already cut five firefighter positions last year.
Current staffing levels are below nationally recognized standards and make the Ann Arbor Fire Department a "one-fire incident department," Lanza said. By that, he said, he means one substantial fire is all that can be handled at a time — there does not exist the reserve equipment or personnel to handle two significant incidents simultaneously.
"I urge you to move forward cautiously, pursue regional fire protection as a way to save and be more effective," Lanza wrote. "Paid on-call and volunteer are not the answer. Your jobs are difficult but I implore you, be strong, make the right decisions, do not further undermine the effectiveness of your fire department."
Matt Schroeder, president of the firefighters union, said he had no comment on the chief's departing letter, other than to say it stands for itself.
City Administrator Roger Fraser could not be reached for comment, nor could Mayor John Hieftje.
"I feel as if I've just been told the truth," Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, said in response to Lanza's letter today.
Briere said she feels the city's administration has spent the last year telling City Council how uncooperative and unwilling the fire department has been in negotiations.
"What I haven't heard from anybody on staff is anything positive about the other side," Briere said, noting Lanza's letter finally does give the firefighters credit. "I never heard it from the fire chief, I never heard it from the chief of police, I never heard it from anybody in HR. What I'm seeing is that there's a discouragement of information flow to council perhaps."
Lanza pointed out the firefighters are the only unionized employees in the city who have taken pay cuts of 3 percent as well as an additional 1 percent pension contribution.
"Are they thanked for their willingness to assist," Lanza wrote. "NO, they are told to give more before other unionized employees give any?"
Lanza criticized the city for deciding recently to temporarily close one fire station in lieu of overtime payments to firefighters. He said response times are lengthened and property damages and potential injury or loss of life increase when that occurs.
"Ours is an aggressive offensive fire department, which means they enter the building, search for victims and extinguish the fire quickly," Lanza wrote. "As staffing continues to drop, it will be forced to become a defensive fire department that means they rarely enter buildings and focus on saving surrounding buildings."
Lanza used a sports analogy to drive home his point. "By the continued cuts in fire protection, I can only compare it to playing baseball with a basketball team," he wrote. "Being short the people needed to field a full team, we will certainly lose."
The City Council recently was presented with options for trimming nearly $1.2 million from the fire department's budget over the next two fiscal years. That includes eliminating up to 13 firefighter positions. The council is expected to make a final decision in May.
Council Member Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, said she read Lanza's letter today and takes the concerns the chief raised very seriously.
She pointed out the city has hired a consultant to complete a staffing analysis in the fire department. The city continues to consider implementing a new system that would blend full-time professional firefighters with a staff of paid on-call firefighters.
"I do know that we are doing a study in the very near term, so it's something that I look forward to getting the results back," Smith said. "We kind of find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and none of us want to compromise the welfare and safety of any citizens, so it's a very tough call. And we're not alone in this if you look across the state."
Asked whether cuts can be avoided in the fire department, Smith said "I think there's going to be cuts everywhere." The city estimated a $2.4 million deficit at the start of the budget process, but city officials think the hole could be as large as $3 million or more now.
"It's our job then to listen to our constituents and prioritize," Smith said. "Not everybody's going to come out of this clean. It's a matter of balancing what the community needs are."
Before he turned in his badge and hung up his hat in fall of 2009, previous Fire Chief Samuel Hopkins sent out a similar goodbye letter telling Ann Arbor firefighters he'd pray for them.
"During these tough economic times, it is difficult to make up for the poor administrative decisions that were made during more prosperous periods," Hopkins wrote in a Sept 2009 e-mail to the entire city fire department.
"Therefore this city finds itself in financial difficulties," Hopkins continued. "In order to salvage the budget problems, the decision makers are planning to ask our members to sacrifice so that this city can attempt to recover economic stability going forward. In leaving, I pray that your safety and the safety of this beautiful city isn't part of the casualties of your sacrifice."
Schroeder noted last month there have been four appointed chiefs of the Ann Arbor Fire Department since 2002, as well as four interim chiefs. As with any organization without consistent leadership, he said, the department has suffered as a result.
"This most recent vacancy adds to the long list of chiefs with very short tenures who could not meet the demands placed upon them by the city administrator," he said.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.