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Posted on Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Three Washtenaw County fire departments work on enhanced fire aid agreement

By Tom Perkins

Three Washtenaw County fire departments are moving forward with plans that could change the way emergency calls for service are handled in the future.

The increased cooperation - which officials say say lies between a mutual aid pact and functional fire district - is designed to maximize resources as several local fire departments see their ranks shrinking and their budgets stretched thin.

Chiefs from the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti Township, and Ypsilanti fire departments will convene in the next week to discuss what Ypsilanti Township Fire Chief Eric Copeland described as a “modified mutual aid agreement.”


Ypsilanti Township Fire Chief Eric Copeland is pictured in the fire station Wednesday.

Tom Perkins | For

The three departments met last month with their city managers and other officials to develop the framework of a modified agreement that's been in the works for several years.

Ypsilanti Fire Chief Jon Ichesco said the three chiefs must now agree on more specific procedures for operating under the new agreement, which will subsequently need the unions' stamp of approval.

Central to the effort is developing run cards to be entered into the computer-aided dispatch system at the Huron Valley Ambulance dispatch center, which handles calls for the departments. The mutual aid box alarm system, as it is called, is a matrix that helps dispatchers quickly determine which station with the proper resources - including personnel and type of truck - are closest to a fire.

Each station will develop run cards that list what type of personnel and equipment their station offers.

Currently, an incident commander at a scene makes the decision on when to call for mutual aid and what trucks and equipment are needed. Officials say the new system would be automatic once another alarm is hit, moving the proper equipment to a scene faster.

“The key component is cooperation,” Copeland said. “We currently have that under the mutual aid format, but this is trying to make the response more automatic based on pre-selected packages, as opposed to it being an order issued by a commander on scene. It just happens automatically instead of looking for what’s best for the next 20, 30 minutes.”

The chiefs say collaboration will lead to significant cost reductions, although exact amounts won't be known until it's in place.

Ann Arbor Chief Dominick Lanza said his department may be able to avoid a $1 million expenditure to replace an aging aerial truck. The city currently has two aerial trucks, with one kept downtown and one in an outlying area of the city.

By having quick access to Ypsilanti or Ypsilanti Township’s aerial trucks, a new aerial truck won't be needed, he said, noting the same goes for the other types of trucks.


Firefighters from Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Ann Arbor are working on aid agreements.

“This way everybody doesn’t have to own everything, so that’s another saving,” he said.

Ichesco said the current mutual aid system allows a fire to spread and endanger lives and property since the call for help isn't made until crews are on the scene. It also requires more manpower and equipment to bring the blaze under control once it has spread, he said.

“The slower you are getting there, the more resources you need," he said. “The sooner you get out there, the better off you are. These are really common sense ideas, but they can be spun a lot of different ways.”

Ichesco and Copeland both pointed to a recent Detroit Free Press article on the failures of automatic aid pacts around metro Detroit. They say the new system would avoid those pitfalls.

Ichesco also said the modified agreement also should allay concerns that some departments are subsidizing others.

The chiefs all said their unions have expressed concerns over potential subsidization of their own departments by their neighbors. All three departments are in some form of labor negotiations that could require layoffs, buyouts or significant cuts.

“These agreements have to be calculated very carefully,” Lanza said.

But some of the county's other full-time fire departments are declining to participate in the new fire system, including Pittsfield Township, Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township.

That makes the geography tougher since Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are several miles apart - with Pittsfield Township in between on several routes between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township.

Pittsfield Township Public Safety Director Matt Harshberger was unavailable for comment. But Ichesco said he remains hopeful Pittsfield Township will try test runs with the other three departments.

Ypsilanti Township nearly surrounds the city of Ypsilanti, so Copeland said he's concerned it wouldn’t make sense to send a truck from Ann Arbor to the city of Ypsilanti and vice versa.


Fire trucks could be responding back and forth from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city and township.

File photo

“It’s those types of logistics, those type of scenarios have to be accounted for so that a collaborative pact would indeed be representative of the resources that are contained within that area,” Copeland said. “But it’s in the works.”

Ichesco said Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have timed runs back in forth in the past, and firefighters usually make it in less than eight minutes, which is recommended by the insurance industry.

Lanza said the departments also are exploring how to handle other duties, such as those of the three fire marshals and inspections.

Ichesco said the three departments will make adjustments where necessary after the agreement is in place.

“We just have to start doing it,” Icesco said. “You can plan and strategize all you want, but until you get in situation, you don’t know.”

Lanza, who was part of a functional fire district in his old department in south Florida before recently taking over in Ann Arbor, said the arrangement is the best approach for residents’ safety and the departments’ budgets.

“I’m not saying its going to be easy, but I will say it can be done, and we’re just looking to do what’s best for the community,” he said.


This map shows fire stations in the county in red (schools are in green).

Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for Reach the news desk at or 734-623-2530.



Sat, Apr 17, 2010 : 9:57 p.m.

Tom, Your map is wrong. Ypsilanti Township has three fire stations, not four. The Harris/Holmes station was converted to WCSD use years ago...


Fri, Apr 16, 2010 : 8:32 a.m.

Thank you, Kristen. @ Alex. Let me clarify what I meant. I don't mean that individual officers would be cheaper. They will all cost aproximately the same. But the cost of administration, budgeting, training, recruiting, etc. are all duplicated by each entity. This need not happen. For example, both the City and the County maintain SWAT units. And the reason that it would be easier to consolodate police services is that a county-wide agency exists already. The Sherriff's Department. AA, Ypsi, Saline and Pittsfield could consolodate under the aegis of the Sherriff quite easily. The majority of the displaced workers would be hired by the Sherriff to cover the need for more line staff. We shouldn't even lose the experienced folks in our communities. Just eliminating the costs of four "spare" Chiefs is significant.

charles lightoller

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 10:57 p.m.

I have been a firefighter in two states and also an EMT in one of them in a distinct ambulance service. I could describe one system as all volunteer/county controlled and the other as "paid on call" muncipal departments/local control. The former, with pre-planned protocols and automatic mutual aid response was definitely the better of the two. Interestingly enough, the ambulance service in the latter went to a regional cooperative system, including funding, ahead of the fire service. Increased operating costs and a decline in volunteers drove the change. But from the standpoint of intelligent emergency service, region based automatic response is the way to go.

Kristin Judge

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 9:51 a.m.

First, I would like to compliment these local departments for their willingness to start the conversation about consolidation. Looking at the revenue numbers for the State of Michigan and our local governments over the next 5-10 years, I am convinced the ONLY way we will survive is by combining services at the very least. Do we really need 28 local governments in Washtenaw County? It was a luxury that I do not think we can afford to support any longer. It is time to redefine local control to mean an area larger than 36 square miles. Let's have the conversations now before we are forced into them because we have run out of money and the residents are not getting the services they need. Second, @ Alex Brown-As a County Commissioner, I have been working on a financial subcommittee of the Police Services Committee. Our mission is to find out the true cost of providing a Sheriff's Deputy to the contracting jurisdictions. Currently, the price being paid is approximately $150,000 per deputy. That includes all the salary, fringe, uniforms, cars etc. that it takes to put an officer on the street. Kristin Judge Washtenaw County Commissioner, District 7

Alex Brown

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 9:22 a.m.

@Awakened - I don't think the Police depts. pay $220,000 per officer. That's what the Sheriff's Dept. costs. Just ask Leah Gunn and Barbara Bergman. That's what they claimed the last time the contracts with the Townships were overhauled. Either they are totally off base or the police depts. would cost a LOT more.


Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 7:58 a.m.

Sweet... maybe they can all pay the AA garage rates for repairs now... haha!


Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 7:39 a.m.

Good move. Hopefully one of the things to be worked out would be elimination of two of the three Chiefs and administrave staffs. This could be done easier on the police side by simply contracting teh Sherriff to provided service in A2.


Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 7:28 a.m.

While there are many benefits, the problem with this type of arrangement is the potential inequity in service calls vs. costs to maintain units. If one region is more prone to fire runs, then the taxpaying residents of another region end up subsidizing their neighboring towns. Even worse, residents from one area wouldn't be happy if a fire happens in their part of town but the response is delayed because their own fire dept. is busy responding to another town's fire. It just takes one or two of these unlikely events to happen and the next thing you know, residents will think twice about voting for that otherwise routine fire/police millage renewal. Then all sorts of bad things happen. Millages are hard enough to get passed in this economic climate.


Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 6:57 a.m.

I think fire districts are a great idea and a fire district consisting of the 3 entities is a step in the right direction but without the other townships, this will be of limited value to Ann Arbor.

No Answers Just Opinions

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 6:06 a.m.

Tom could you give us a map that shows the borders of the communities and where the fire stations are?