Fire Authority Grapples with How Best to Address Staffing Needs

At their meeting yesterday, members of the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority voted in support of hiring a consultant to assist in determining if and how full-time firefighters should be added to the department. However, the action didn’t come without some discussion and disagreement among members about whether it was appropriate to bring in a third party to conduct a departmental review.

The authority was established a decade ago by Lowell Charter Township, the City of Lowell and Vergennes Township. The three municipalities split costs for fire and emergency services based on a formula that takes into account the number of calls responded to in their area among other factors. Each government is represented by two board members, but a significant change to the fire department’s budget – such as the addition of full-time firefighters – requires approval from the full city council and township boards.

Concern over Increasing Number of Calls

In January 2019, representatives of the fire department presented information to each municipality’s governing body about why full-time firefighters are needed.

Deputy Chief Shannon Witherell told Lowell City Council there is no guarantee of a response crew during the day since many of the on-call firefighters have first-shift jobs. He also noted that the number of emergency calls handled by the department has been rising in recent years.

According to a review of Fire Authority Board meeting minutes by Lowell’s First Look, emergency calls per year break down as follows. Total numbers did not appear to be recorded in the minutes for 2012 and 2013.

  • 2009 – 50 to 55 calls per month (per Fire Chief’s December report)
  • 2010 – 691 (195 for fire and 496 for medical as of December)
  • 2011 – 652 (210 for fire and 442 for medical as of December)
  • 2014 – 638 fire and medical (as of December)
  • 2015 – 771 fire and medical
  • 2016 – 800 fire and medical
  • 2017 – 778 fire and medical
  • 2018 – 881 fire and medical

In 2014, the minutes note Jim Herb, Chair of the Fire Authority Board, asked about the decline in calls. Then Fire Chief Frank Martin replied that firemen don’t attend calls at Laurels of Kent or Fountainview unless requested by an ambulance. This had an impact on the call volume.

However, it’s not clear if this is still the policy of the department. In a discussion with Lowell’s First Look, City of Lowell Mayor Mike DeVore expressed a concern that the addition of new assisted living facilities in the area could further increase calls to the department.

Disagreement over Approach to Full-Time Firefighters

While everyone seems to agree the department should proactively address future staffing needs, members of the authority board appear divided on how best to do that.

In his presentation to Lowell City Council, Witherell recommended three full-time firefighters be added to the force. These individuals would respond to calls from 6am-4pm on Mondays through Fridays. The estimated cost to add these staff members was said to be $160,000 annually.

“I’ve owned several businesses, and I looked at those numbers and thought no way,” Herb says. Once pension, medical and uniform costs are added to salary, he thinks the actual cost of adding full-time firefighters could be much higher. “You want to support the fire department but on the other hand, we have to represent our constituents the taxpayers,” he says.

Herb’s suggestion has been to bring in a consultant to conduct a review of the department and its staffing needs. That proposal doesn’t sit well with DeVore who adamantly believes it is not the authority’s place to tell the fire department how to run its daily operations.

“The fire department has done a study [of their needs] and every time we have questions, they answer them,” DeVore said at yesterday’s meeting. He did not see the value in bringing in a third party to do a separate evaluation. In an apparent reference to discord among authority board members, he also said, “I don’t think you go into another person’s house when your own house is messy.”

Herb says he isn’t interested in micromanaging the fire department, but he thinks it would be helpful to have someone from outside the program evaluate both the current on-call system as well as provide guidance on if and how to set up full-time staffing. “I’m looking at it strictly as a business and how it affects taxpayers,” he explains. For instance, he has received feedback from three potential firefighters who opted to work for other departments because Lowell holds its trainings on Saturdays.

Motion for Consultant Passes, Goes to Municipalities

The Fire Authority Board voted 5-1 – with DeVore as the dissenting vote – to hire McGrath Consulting Group to conduct a comprehensive fire/rescue assessment. The cost of the assessment is $20,250 and would be split among the three municipalities. At least two of the three municipalities would have to approve the expense first.

“If $20,000 helps us make a smart decision on a $2 million investment, I think that’s a good thing,” noted Greg Canfield, a City of Lowell councilmember in attendance at the authority meeting. The $2 million investment refers to the expected 10-year cost of adding full-time firefighters.

Heather Hoffman, Vergennes Township Clerk, was in agreement. “[Full-time staffing] is a significant change to our line item for the department budget,” she said. “I think we need to have an unbiased eye of what our needs are.”

Herb previously told Lowell’s First Look that Vergennes Township has seen its costs for emergency services increase from $30,000 in the year before the authority was created to more than $114,000 for Fiscal Year 2019.There is a concern that the added expense of full-time firefighters could be enough to push township board members to consider withdrawing from the authority.

The Fire Authority Board also received information from Fire Chief Ron van Overbeek regarding suggestions on how to use an $80,000 in surplus in the authority budget for full-time staffing. He outlined suggested salaries as well as potential savings from having a full-time staff member conduct inspections. He recommended vacation and retirement benefits but said the department wouldn’t be required to offer health benefits if a single employee was hired.

The board voted to accept van Overbeek’s suggestions as an informational item and will presumably continue the discussion on full-time staffing at their next meeting to be held Monday, October 14, at 3:30pm at the fire station.

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