The Fire Department and The Budget
Tonight, Paul Smith will propose a $5.6 million cut to the Fire Department’s budget for 2012/13 via a restructuring of the department to what he terms as a ‘move toward paid on call or a volunteer department’. Re-examining the role of the Fire Department in Sterling Heights is an idea that has a great deal of merit.
If you study the numbers regarding the number of runs the Fire Department performs annually, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they spend far more time on medical emergencies than they do putting out fires. Essentially what we have in Sterling Heights is an emergency medical service that also happens to be pretty well equipped to fight fires.
One of the problems, of course, is that the firefighters do not actually transport patients to the hospital, despite their recent overtures to city council to begin performing this service. For each and every medical run that requires transport, a third party vendor comes in and supplies the ambulance. Thus, every Fire Department medical run that results in a patient transport is redundant and unnecessary!
Although the Fire Department’s response times are laudable, the fact is that Sterling Heights’ emergency medical needs are being used to justify a Fire Department that is too large and too expensive given the actual historical need for fighting fires in this town. The private vendor could just as easily perform all of the medical runs in Sterling Heights, and given an adjustment to the way the runs are handled, the vendor could probably achieve the same response times. The city could easily transfer all the expense of providing emergency medical service to a third party. It should do so.
Considering the fact that Sterling Heights was developed during a period of time when more modern fire codes were in effect compared to cities such as Detroit, our need for fire fighting will probably remain relatively low in the future. This is not to say, however, that I think a move to a volunteer department would be a wise one. I have personally consulted with Troy’s Fire Chief, and his position is that a move to a volunteer department would not work in Sterling Heights. I take him at his word.
As far as “paid on call” is concerned: anything that takes firefighters out of the station does a great deal of damage to response times. I would be more willing to see a department that does less but still has people on staff 24/7/365–perhaps in fewer stations– than one that removes fire fighters from the stations.
In the end, I think Paul Smith is right: we need to reconsider the role and expense of our Fire Department. I may differ with Mr. Smith in the approach he wants to take in doing so, but he is correct to say that the current department is no longer affordable.