Six Months Into Fire Merger, Officials Report Smooth Transition
Plymouth, Northville firefighters share resources, costs to cover two communities.
It’s been six months since the cities of Northville and Plymouth merged fire services, and officials say the transition has been smooth.
The joint operations kicked off Jan. 1 after the City of Plymouth sought more cost-effective ways to provide fire services in its community. It had previously contracted services through Plymouth Township's department, but began exploring options in 2005 before ultimately passing an agreement with Northville in 2011.
The move changed how Plymouth provided fire services to its residents. Under its previous agreement with Plymouth Township, full-time firefighters responded to emergencies in the city and township. Northville, however, utilizes a paid on-call system where firefighters are paid hourly during fire calls, but do not regularly work out of a station. If a fire breaks, firefighters head from home to the fire station and board a truck, or respond directly to the scene.
Since Jan. 1, the combined departments have conducted more than 750 runs in both communities, with paramedic assistance by Huron Valley Ambulance, a private ambulance contractor.
The move also resulted in a new fire station in downtown Plymouth adjacent to City Hall and the Plymouth Police Department. The move also reopened an old station on Spring Street — on the other side of the CSX railroad tracks from Plymouth’s primary downtown station — to keep a spare pumper truck available.
Firefighters have same qualifications as full-time personnel
The switch from full-time coverage to paid on-call has alarmed some in Plymouth who feel the service is a step down from what the city previously offered.
"This is a downgrade," Patch reader "John" said in a comment on a story about a June condominium fire in downtown Plymouth. "Plymouth needs a full-time fire department."
Plymouth City Manager Paul Sincock said one misconception of the new fire service model is that the paid on-call firefighters aren’t as qualified as their full-time counterparts at other departments. In reality, he said, they all hold the same state certifications.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re full-time or part-time,” Sincock said, “You’re required to have the same training. We have people here who have 30-plus years of experience.”
Patch reader Linda Johnson said she is "frustrated" with the public not knowing the qualifications of the paid on-call firefighters and said she feels comfortable with the personnel responding to emergency calls.
"I know several of them and I know their qualifications which are on par with the full-time firefighters," she wrote in a comment.
The new model for Plymouth mirrors what has been in place for years in Northville.
Jim Allen, the combined department’s fire chief, is a veteran firefighter in Northville. Joining the department as a firefighter in 1964, Allen was the city’s first — and only — full-time firefighter, earning a full-time schedule in 1995, 17 years after being named chief in 1978.
“It’s always been paid on-call,” he said of the Northville department, and he says that model is used in about 70 percent of cities nationwide.
With the larger department, Allen said he manages about 60 paid on-call firefighters distributed equally between the two cities, and the department sees plenty of firefighters able to respond to local fires and emergencies.
When a small condominum fire broke in Plymouth in June, a total of 39 firefighters responded, with about half assisting at the scene of the fire and the rest filling the Plymouth station with a spare truck in case backup was needed, or if another call came through elsewhere.
In the midst of Green Street Fair in May, a Plymouth garage fire consumed two cars and caused a series of explosions. For that fire, Sincock said, 30 firefighters were at the home fighting the blaze.
“We’ve got a good bunch of eager people and a good amount of experience,” Allen said.
Response times similar to previous model
During negotiations to merge the departments and adopt a paid on-call system, some residents had objected, citing concerns over longer response times by not having fully staffed fire stations.
To date, the average response time for calls in 2012 has been 8.5 minutes, up from 7.2 minutes the previous year, an increase of 1.3 minutes.
“The response times are well within the parameters we’ve established,” Sincock said.
“They’re pretty comparable,” Allen said about the gap in response times, though the chief said he’d like the times to be a little shorter.
Allen said because of increased personnel, more people are able to respond to emergencies than under the previous system, where a smaller group of firefighters would be able to respond.
Communities encounter small hiccups with merger
While the numbers indicate a relatively seamless transition in responding to fire calls, Sincock said there have been some small bumps along the way.
One issue was with dispatch, getting all the communications equipment fully compatible between stations, and ironing out communication issues between dispatchers and firefighters across both communities so personnel are all using consistent language to relay information during emergencies.
“Any organization, you get a little bump in the road,” Sincock said.
Merger left township with budget shortfall
The departure of the city from its agreement left Plymouth Township with a nearly $1 million shortfall in funding that would have been provided by the city for shared fire services and just two-thirds of its previous coverage area, prompting layoffs of six full-time firefighters in March and a reduction of 23 percent of the township’s fire budget.
The cuts drew fierce opposition from the fire union and its supporters as the Plymouth Township Board of Trustees voted for what it considered “right-sizing” the department.
Department pushes for community outreach
Plymouth's firefighters have done their part to reach out to the community, so residents are familiar — and comfortable — with the new firefighters and department, Sincock said.
Increased visibility of firefighters in the community, he said, has helped win over some who were skeptical of the new department.
“Residents’ reaction is this is really cool to see the fire station and seeing our crews out on the streets doing their training,” he said.
The city also sends firefighters to downtown events, such as the Friday night Music in the Air concerts, to give children plastic fire hats and give tours of the trucks, as well as replacing flags at the Plymouth Historical Museum and filling up dunk tanks at Central Middle School.
“They’re seeing a lot of community involvement,” Sincock said of residents.
And Sincock said it is important to relay to the community the firefighters’ — and Huron Valley Ambulance's — accomplishments.
“We do that with all of our employees. We think that’s important,” he said. “Technically they’re the City of Northville employees, but they’re on our team.”
Fire merger by the numbers
Population (2010 U.S. Census):
Fire/EMS calls (as of July 3, 2012):
Average Plymouth response time since merger:
Before merger: 7.2 minutes
Since merger: 8.5 minutes
Hourly rate for paid on-call firefighters:
Fire run: About $20/hour
Special events: About $10/hour
Training: About $18/hour