Ann Arbor fire chief says now is 'prime time' to create regional fire authority
Ann Arbor Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard says he's still in favor of consolidating area fire departments and forming a regional fire authority — an idea that's been kicked around for years.
"We've been talking about it probably for five or six years now, trying to do that," Hubbard told AnnArbor.com. "The unions all have to get on board, the politicians have to get on board, the chiefs have to get on board. I think at the chiefs level, we're pretty much ready to do it."
With the retirements of fire chiefs in both the city of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor Township, Hubbard said it makes sense now more than ever to think seriously about a regional fire authority.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The level of momentum around the idea doesn't seem to match Hubbard's enthusiasm for it, though. Even he characterized the talks as "stagnant."
"And if you look at what's going on in Ypsi city right now, they're talking about a hybrid system that's a police and fire combination," he said.
Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti officials have been engaged in loose discussions within the last few years about eventually moving toward a regional fire authority.
But that idea essentially has been put on hold as the city of Ypsilanti, in an effort to cut costs, is pursuing a new hybrid public safety model that involves consolidating the city's police and fire departments and cross-training police officers and firefighters to do both jobs.
In a report Ypsilanti officials submitted to the state in February as part of the state's incentive funding process for municipalities, they acknowledged creating a regional fire authority as soon as 2014 remains an option, but the idea is temporarily on hold.
"A fire authority will require an agreement between policy makers, labor unions, and administration," Ypsilanti's report to the state reads, going on to acknowledge members of the proposed authority "continue to fail to successfully navigate these three issues."
The report mentions four meetings were held in February, July, September and October last year where representatives from Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township discussed collaborating in ways that could lead to a regional fire department.
The report notes they've looked at standardizing fire and building codes, sharing or contracting prevention services, and creating an arson task force. They've also talked about enhancing the box alarm system for mutual aid to an "automatic aid response."
Jeffrey Smith | AnnArbor.com
In the last year, the Wayne and Westland fire departments merged services, as did those of Pontiac and Waterford. Hubbard, who lives in Westland, cited the new Wayne-Westland Fire Authority as an example Ann Arbor could follow to create a singular fire entity for the area.
"There are many ways you could set that up," he said. "It would help to get someone in here who was an expert in that area and let them kind of guide you as to how to do it."
Hubbard sees a regional authority as an improvement over mutual aid.
"Mutual aid is a request for help. This would be automatic, when the bell rings the closest trucks would go," he said. "It makes sense to have a system that sends the closest truck to the fire."
Former Ypsilanti Fire Chief Jon Ichesco, who retired in December, was in favor of the idea of a larger fire district that would include Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the townships of Pittsfield, Ypsilanti Superior and Ann Arbor if those jurisdictions were interested.
As recently as December, the city of Ann Arbor was in talks with neighboring Ann Arbor Township regarding a potential merger of their two municipal fire departments. The township turned down the city's request, saying it wasn't in the best interest of township residents.
"It didn't save us any money and it lengthened response times," said Township Supervisor Michael Moran. "They proposed to close our two stations and respond from a station that's farther away."
Moran said it was difficult for him to comment on the larger idea of a regional fire authority since there's no specific proposal on the table.
"We have not been participating in any discussions," he said. "There's a relationship between Ypsilanti and the city of Ann Arbor, and there are mutual aid agreements between many departments, but I have not heard of anything regarding a wider-ranging proposal."
Moran said it makes sense to move in the direction of regional collaboration, and the improvement of mutual aid among departments in recent years has been a good first step.
"There's been some thought that perhaps if there was a wider area, there might be the ability to close some stations or combine equipment use, but for each jurisdiction you have to look at it and see if it makes sense," he said of creating a regional authority.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Moran said Ann Arbor Township doesn't currently have a mutual aid agreement with the city of Ann Arbor, but it has such agreements with other local jurisdictions.
Matt Harshberger, director of public safety for Pittsfield Township, said the box alarm system for mutual aid among four participating fire departments — Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township — has been very effective.
The way the box alarm system works, if the initial alarm of firefighters responding to a fire determines upon arrival that mutual aid is needed, it can trigger the dispatch of a second and even third alarm of firefighters from the other jurisdictions.
Harshberger said Pittsfield Township is always interested in exploring regional efforts to maximize collaboration and provide the best service to the public.
He said he personally isn't involved in any discussions about forming a regional fire authority, but he knows Ypsilanti officials had brought up the idea in the past.
"It never got far enough along that we actually sat down and crunched numbers to see if it would be a benefit for Pittsfield," he said.
"Really the box alarm was a first step," he added. "It has worked really well. We've had to tweak it a few times to maximize its effectiveness, but so far that's about it.
"There haven't been any further discussions about going past that right now, other than to get more departments to participate in the box alarm system."
Hubbard said there would be many details to work out for a regional fire authority, including how it would be funded. Right now fire services in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are funded by the cities' general funds, while Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township have special millages.
Hubbard said he's not sure which municipalities would buy in, but he said it would make sense to include at least the four communities already participating in the box alarm system.
"I would suspect those four would be pretty major players in it," he said. "And then possibly Superior and Ann Arbor townships may come on board since we're all connected in a way."
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said he's working with Yousef Rabhi, the new chairman of the county board, to resurrect the Washtenaw Metro Alliance, a coalition of local government officials Hieftje helped form a decade ago to focus on regional collaboration, including on fire services.
"I'm a big believer in regionalization," Hieftje said. "This is the modern trend in fire services. We can cover the area and provide better service to our residents with regionalization."
The mayor put it another way: "If my house is on fire and firefighters show up, I don't really care which department they're from."
Hieftje said he sees a singular regional fire department as a good longterm goal, but in the shorter term he said local governments need to remove barriers to greater collaboration.
"There are some labor contract barriers out there that need to be resolved," he said, pointing to a provision in the Ann Arbor firefighters contract, for example, that requires the city, if there's a box alarm request for mutual aid where other departments are called in at no extra cost to the city, the city also must call back its own firefighters from two shifts that are off duty to respond as well.
"And we pay a minimum of four hours of overtime to anyone who is en route, and that typically runs $1,000 to $1,500 per occurrence and it could be more than that," Hieftje said. "We need to look throughout the region at the barriers that prevent us from fully utilizing our resources."
In addition to its partners in the box alarm system, Ann Arbor also is part of a countywide mutual aid pack where it can request aid — although not automatic — from departments throughout the county.
The Ann Arbor Fire Department provided mutual aid 33 times and received mutual aid 29 times in 2012, according to figures provided by Hubbard.
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 email newsletters.