Fire department merger? City of Ann Arbor in talks with Ann Arbor Township
Update at 9:16 a.m.: Download the proposal
Ann Arbor Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard informed the city's firefighters this week, saying the city has given the township a written proposal and township officials are in the process of reviewing the offer. If and when they make a decision, Hubbard wrote in an email, firefighters will be informed.
Ann Arbor Township Fire Chief Rick Ericson confirmed the township has received the city's proposal and is considering it.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Ericson said the city's written proposal contained some inaccuracies. He said it's supposed to be resubmitted once corrected.
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said it's premature to talk about any details surrounding the merger but he said there is a conversation that's happening.
"I know they have very sophisticated apparatus up there," he said of the township. "But again, there's a lot to be talked about — particularly labor issues."
The Ann Arbor Fire Department has 86 full-time employees and a budget that totals about $14 million, which is significantly larger than the township's department.
The township's fire department has a $1.2 million operating budget. Its staff includes the fire chief and six other full-time employees, plus 10 paid on-call firefighters who come from home when called.
Ericson said the paid on-call firefighters have the same training certifications as the full-time firefighters, but it's sometimes a challenge getting them to the scene.
"They're on call and they have full-time careers so they're not always available, which is why the township is exploring various options," he said.
"Nowadays, it's very, very hard to maintain on-call firefighters because it is very time consuming," Ericson added. "Besides runs, it's learning the equipment and maintaining your training, and you have to be at the fire station an awful lot to maintain those."
Ericson said the township has two fire stations and eight vehicles, including two traditional fire engines, a ladder truck, a tanker, three rescues and a brush truck.
Ann Arbor has five stations and has been considering a proposal to go down to three, but that hasn't been implemented since Hubbard floated the idea in March.
If a merger between the city and township happens, Ericson said, there would be labor issues to work out and it's his goal not to have any of the township's full-time employees lose jobs.
"Obviously we don't want to put anybody out on the streets," he said.
As for Ericson, he's retiring in June after 18 years on the job, so he said he's out of the picture. He's been in the fire service the past 37 years.
"I'm looking forward to it in some respects and I'm going to miss it," he said of retiring, adding he might be interested in hanging around as a consultant.
Asked how the merger talks started, Hieftje said it goes back to seven or eight years ago when he asked the city and surrounding townships to work together.
"These conversations have been percolating ever since then," he said. "We have much better collaboration with Ypsilanti Township and with Ypsilanti and Pittsfield than we used to, and so it's been improving all the time and we hope to be able to continue the conversation with all of them."
Hieftje said it's hard to say how it will work out, but one of the topics of conversation is an expansion of the Ann Arbor Fire Department's footprint to absorb the township's department.
"Fire departments working together is the wave of the future," Hieftje said. "It has been actually the wave of the present for a while. People around the country are looking at that mainly because there are so fewer fires than there used to be a few decades ago."
A good example of cooperation between jurisdictions, Hieftje said, is a fire that broke out in October at a condominium complex off Huron Parkway. Firefighters came from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township and had it extinguished in about a half hour.
"There were 30 firefighters there from four different departments, and that's the kind of collaboration that can save taxpayers money, but also provide even better fire services," Hieftje said.
Since its inception in the 1940s, Ericson said Ann Arbor Township has had a combination fire department using a mix of full-time employees and volunteers (now paid on-call). He said it's been difficult to keep an adequate supply of on-call firefighters trained to do the job, and many of the good ones end up leaving for full-time jobs at other departments.
"People just don't have the community commitment they used to have," he said. "People these days just don't really want to do things for free anymore. And it used to be a more relaxed environment, whereas the requirements today for on-call firefighters are much stricter than they used to be."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.