Fire Dept Merger Study in progress, Ray Riggs Explains what’s going on in plans with Hazel Park
(Crystal A. Proxmire, 4/4/2011)
The Ferndale Fire Department and the Hazel Park Fire Department have long been discussing the idea of a merger. In order to make that happen, the cities have enlisted the help of SEMCOG (South East Michigan Council of Governments) and consultant Ray Riggs.
Riggs retired from the West Bloomfield Fire Department two years ago after 30 years of service. He’d worked his way up to the Assistant Chief in Charge of Emergency Operations, and was instrumental in their department’s merger with the Tri Cities Fire Department, which was serving Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor and Silman Lake.
After retirement he began consulting work for SEMCOG, helping member communities with public safety issues. He has assisted Ferndale and Hazel Park by facilitating discussions between the two cities. He was also able to work with the Michigan Municipal League to secure a grant to fund a study on the cost and feasibility of a merger. The MML Foundation is paying 50% of the cost. Hazel Park and Ferndale have each chipped in 25% of the cost. Ferndale City Council approved this $12,000 expenditure at their March 14, 2011 Council meeting.
The contract was awarded to Oregon-based Emergency Services Consulting international (ESCI), a company that is experienced in public safety mergers.
Riggs said he expects the study to take about a year. ESCI will consider all the variables and talk to all the stakeholders, and come up with a plan for a merger. The cities are not bound by the plan, and it will be up to Council if they want to move forward with all, or part, of ESCI’s recommendations.
Speculation on the merger has some residents uneasy, some expressing worry that a merger might cost the community more firefighters, might cause a station to be closed, or might take away citizen input on over-seeing the service.
“Whenever there is a change, there are unhappy people,” said Riggs. “The reason we’re doing a study is so we can explore all the opportunities and do this right.”
He stressed that those conducting the study will be continuing to talk to the unions, the Department Heads, the City Managers, Council and others involved, and that there will be opportunities for public input before anything is approved by Council.
“It would be premature to speculate what any changes might be. That’s what the study is going to look at,” Riggs said.
He said that loosing man-power should not be a worry because both departments are already staffed in a “lean” way. “If anything the merger may enable them to provide better coverage so that there are more firefighters available to be on a scene.”
One consideration on the minds of City leaders is how the creation of a Regional Fire Authority might provide stability for the Departments. The Authority would be its own governmental entity, managed by a publicly elected board with a stabilized funding source. Taxes would be collected specifically to pay for Fire service, much the same way the Library is funded.
Another fear is what might happen to the firefighters and staff from each department. In other mergers, such as the one Riggs experienced in West Bloomfield, employees were given the first option of working for the newly formed department. Those who did not meet the requirement of being a licensed paramedic were given the option of completing enough schooling to earn their certification and qualify for the job.
Riggs also said that people have been worried that the merger might bring about the closing of the Fire Station #2, located on E. 9 Mile near Hilton. “I can’t say until the report is done, but as a firefighter I can speculate that it would be very unlikely they’d close that station. It seems like it would be even more important since it’s be covering runs in both directions.”
The cost of a merger is one that the study will examine. Many variables could influence the cost, including locations, equipment needs, election costs, costs negotiating contracts, insurance costs and more. “There is going to be some expense up front,” Riggs said. “But long term it will mean continuance of good service.” He said that it also would make Ferndale more likely to qualify for incentives from the state for consolidating service, depending on what plans Michigan adopts for the coming year.
Another study was done several years ago that explored the possibility of a merger of seven local departments. The communities found the project too overwhelming a task and the idea was set aside. Riggs explained that merging two departments is a lot easier than merging seven, and that depending on how the authority is created it may be relatively easy to add on neighboring communities that want to join in later.
As ESCI moves forward with the study for Hazel Park and Ferndale, Riggs continues to help with coordination and communication between the cities and the other parties involved. Learn more about SEMCOG at http://www.semcog.org.