EDITORIAL: Ann Arbor City Council needs to be involved in fire station decision
If the Ann Arbor Fire Department is falling well short of national standards for response times, any plan that gets more firefighters to the scene of a fire faster sounds promising.
That’s why we’re open to the reorganization plan being put forward by Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard even though it’s based on the counterintuitive proposition that reducing the number of fire stations will result in better fire protection.
Ryan Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The plan is an attempt by the chief to make the best use of the personnel and equipment he has available to him -- understanding that the Fire Department has been cut from 94 FTEs to 82 since 2010.
Hubbard’s plan would close three of the city’s five fire stations and reopen Station 2, for a net reduction from five stations to three. The move would allow him to staff the remaining stations with at least four firefighters at each.
Getting four firefighters to a fire is key. Firefighters operate under a “two in, two out’’ protocol, which means they can’t enter a burning building until there are at least two firefighters to go into the building while at least two remain outside.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, departments should get four firefighters to the scene within four minutes 90 percent of the time. Ann Arbor falls well short of that standard and even if the chief’s reorganization is implemented, the city will still fall short.
Right now, the Fire Department only meets that standard 36 percent of the time, which ought to concern residents greatly. The department typically only has three firefighters on duty as most stations, so the first responding fire truck doesn’t put the necessary four firefighters on the scene.
Hubbard says under his plan, the department would meet the NFPA standard 72 percent of the time - a significant improvement.
But how good is good enough? That is a question the community must ask - and answer. The NFPA goal of 90 percent is the gold standard, but it would be hard to find a department that meets it.
The International City/County Management Association, which the city hired last year to study our Fire Department, doesn’t track average response times, because too many variables can influence that. It says what’s important is for each community to define the level of service it wants and work toward achieving that. In Ann Arbor, at a time when the city’s budget is stabilizing after two years of deep cuts to police and fire services, now is the appropriate time to have that discussion.
In the coming fiscal year, the city had anticipated having to cut more positions from the Fire Department, but now expects to at least keep staffing levels stable. The city even has the option of dipping into an expected surplus to hire more firefighters if it chooses to, but there’s some reluctance to do that, given that the forecast is for tighter budgets in the future, which means those new positions might have to be eliminated down the road.
The fire chief’s reorganization plan is designed to improve response times given the staffing he has now. When questioned at a recent City Council meeting, Hubbard said his ideal staffing level would be 88. In our view, the chief’s proposed reorganization looks like a sensible short-term plan, but we don’t see a long-term plan or any consensus around what level of fire service the community expects or deserves.
Last week, the city announced it would delay the fire reorganization plan at least until fall, primarily out of concern over how work on the Stadium bridges could delay response times. Between now and then, Hubbard will seek community input on the plan.
We think there has to be a larger discussion than that, and City Council needs to lead it. No one should find it acceptable that the department only meets response standards 36 percent of the time. But what makes 72 percent an acceptable number, just because that’s what the chief’s plan would achieve? ICMA strongly recommended that City Council develop a fire protection master plan for Ann Arbor, including measureable goals for response times. That’s what’s missing here.
The chief’s plan can be implemented administratively, without City Council approval. This is too important of an issue for council to sit out. Not only should it exercise its prerogative to deliberate and vote on this plan, it should do so within the context of clearly defined goals set with public input. How can council make good decisions about fire protection when neither it nor the community has defined what it’s trying to achieve?
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board at AnnArbor.com.)