Retired Ypsilanti Fire Department chief: Regionalization is the way to remain solvent
Ypsilanti's recently retired fire chief Jon Ichesco has seen the department undergo many changes. As it moves forward without him, he's hopeful it will remain intact despite the city's financial struggles.
Courtesy Kate de Fuccio
"Ideally I would like to see it stay intact at least with the levels we have, but that's not going to happen," Ichesco said. "Projecting out, I don't see us being solvent. Ypsilanti is going to struggle for at least another five years."
After 28 years of service within the Ypsilanti Fire Department, Ichesco retired Dec. 31. Capt. Max Anthouard was named interim chief Dec. 20.
Ichesco said the person who becomes the permanent chief will be tasked with figuring out where to take the department next.
"Whoever it is, they're going to have to stay positive," Ichesco said. "They're going to have to have a plan or at least a philosophical plan of what they're going to do and how they're going to do it... (The department) is just running out of resources and options."
In October, it was announced that the department's staffing levels were decreased from five per shift to four. Ichesco said at the time he was worried about how the change might impact fire services for Ypsilanti residents.
At its peak in the 1980s, the fire department had 35 firefighters; now it has 15.
"The best idea, other than having our department, is to go toward regionalization," Ichesco said. "We should be part of a bigger department to provide the level of services our citizens deserve instead of reducing them to an unacceptable level. Your borders are really artificial."
Ypsilanti is currently part of a mutual aid, box alarm system with Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township and Ann Arbor. Ichecso said the city needs to expand upon that. In December, it was announced that the city of Ann Arbor is in talks with Ann Arbor Township regarding a potential merger of their two fire departments.
"We can't continue the box alarm system without conforming with partners if we're going to reduce staff," Ichesco said. "Right now, these are all fragile agreements."
Ichesco said more and more departments are considering combining to maintain services and reduce costs.
"I've been on my soap box about this since 2007," he said.
Ypsilanti officials are considering a hybrid model that would have separate police and fire departments with an "adequate" number of firefighters to respond to daily service demands.
This would be coupled with a larger police department that would have a certain number of cross-trained officers that have been trained and equipped to respond to major fire incidents whenever the fire department is busy or on another run.
"There was a trend to go to public safety in the early 1980s, but revenue is drying up and to me, that puts us at a tipping point," Ichesco said. "We need to look beyond the few years ahead."
Ichesco has openly voiced his opposition to the creation of a public safety department.
"To change the model we're in now dramatically and rapidly, we would implode on both sides," he said. "It would be too much for people to adapt to."
Lange told AnnArbor.com the city is more interested in retaining control of core services like police and fire, but said partnering with Ypsilanti Township would be a consideration if the hybrid model doesn't pan out.
Despite the issues facing the city, Ichesco remains optimistic.
"There's always going to be an Ypsilanti," Ichesco said. "There's probably always going to be some sort of department. We put a lot of effort in to changing the culture and how it should be operated."
Ichesco, 66, was hired in 1984 as a firefighter and served in the department for 28 years. In 1994, he became the fire marshal, and in 2007, the fire chief. Ichesco said it was a difficult time to be chief amid the continuous loss of revenue, but his dedicated team of firefighters made it worthwhile.
"The camaraderie, the inside jokes like family, just the little things ... those are the things you remember," Ichesco said. "Those are the things I value most."
One thing Ichesco will remember is how he fought for stricter enforcement regarding dangerous buildings. On Jan. 15, 2003, the City Council passed an ordinance to enforce procedures designed to deal with unsafe and dangerous buildings.
The ordinance came after some firefighters were seriously injured in a fire in 1998 after falling through the floor of a dangerous home, Ichesco said.
"To be present in a fire scene when two of our friends are carried out a basement and not knowing one of the conditions and seeing him crushed... that led to my passion to work and get the dangerous building ordinance," Ichesco said.
The city has since adopted the ordinance that has led to dozens of unsafe and blighted homes and buildings being demolished.
Mayor Paul Schreiber said Ichesco has helped transform the city and reduce the number of blighted structures.
"Chief Icheco has always had the best interest of the city at heart," Schreiber said. "He looks out for the city and as fire marshal, he's done a good job at that. I'm sorry to see him go, but I'm glad he's able to retire and maybe he’ll get a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor."
A roast will be held for Ichesco from 2 to 5 p.m., Jan. 20 at the Michigan Firehouse Museum located at 110 W. Cross St.