2015-08-27 / Front Page

Clayton Twp. looking to trim fire service costs

BY LANIA ROCHA
810-452-2652 • lrocha@mihomepaper.com

CLAYTON TOWNSHIP – Township officials say they’re not ruling out a split with the city of Swartz Creek as they look for ways to reduce the cost of maintaining a fire department.

“We are always looking at ways to cut the cost of providing services to the residents,” said township Treasurer Rick Caruso. “We can’t keep providing services we can’t afford. We have to cut back or raise revenues.”

Caruso said township officials have discussed creating a township fire department or contracting with Flushing, which already serves Flushing Township.

Flushing charges Flushing Township about $156,000 annually, but returns whatever portion is unused at the end of the year, officials said.

Preliminary estimates are that Flushing could cover Clayton Township for about $125,000 annually. The difference stems from what Clayton Township brings to the table, including a fire station, rigs and equipment, officials said.

Clayton Township residents pay 0.8 mils for fire services. The millage generates about $167,000 per year.

Last year, the township board had to take $4,000 from the general fund to cover firefighter wages.

One reason the wages were so high is automatic mutual aid to Flushing, officials said.

The Swartz Creek Area Fire Department has automatic mutual aid agreements with Flushing, Gaines Township and Venice Township fire departments.

In the past five years, AMA calls to Flushing Township have cost the SCAFD about $14,000, Caruso said.

The city and township split the cost.

In 2013, SCAFD crews were summoned to Flushing’s jurisdiction 33 times. They were canceled 20 of those times, Caruso said.

“If there is a report of a structure fire in Swartz Creek or Clayton Township, Gaines Township and Flushing are sent automatically, “ said Genesee County 911 dispatcher Jacob Reitano.

Operators use specific criteria to determine when to activate automatic mutual aid.

“If no smoke or flames are seen, we don’t send (automatic mutual aid),” Reitano said. “If there’s just an odor or a smoke alarm going off, there’s no AMA. If the fire is contained in an oven, there’s no AMA. But if they see smoke or flames directly coming from a structure, or if we get multiple calls for a structure fire, of if there’s a chimney fire, then AMA is sent.”

Swartz Creek and Flushing were among the first departments in the county to have automatic mutual aid, Reitano said. The protocol was established because of a daytime shortage of firefighters.

“It’s a valuable tool for us as an on-call fire department,” said Mundy Township Fire Chief Ed Blight, president of the Genesee County Fire Chiefs’ Association. “There is a manpower shortage for daytime incidents.”

With fire doubling in size every minute, quick response is essential, experts say. For some residents, the quickest response comes from the adjacent jurisdiction.

“For people on the northern boundaries, Flushing Fire Department is going to get on scene before we are because they’re closer,” said SCAFD Fire Chief Brent Cole.

Ending automatic mutual aid could cost residents more for homeowners insurance due to a higher Insurance Service Office (ISO) fire suppression rating, Cole said.

With the exception of two or three houses in the far northwest corner of the service area, residents within the SCAFD district have an ISO rating of 5.

“It took 2 ½ years to get that (ISO rating) updated,” said Cole. “We had to have AMA in place and working. We had to have proof of training. We had to inventory equipment. We had to show how many (firefighters) normally showed up (at a fire scene).”

Caruso said the township isn’t looking at ending mutual aid entirely.

“If someone needs help fighting a fire, you get in the truck and go fight that fire,” he said, adding that mutual aid would be less costly as local units could assess the need for aid before neighboring units are mobilized.

Looking at the AMA costs from another perspective, township Trustee Rich Tesner, who formerly represented the township on the Fire Board, said that in 2013, the SCAFD and Flushing Fire Department dedicated 961 man hours providing automatic mutual aid to each other.

Of those hours, 457 were within the SCAFD jurisdiction; 504 were in the Flushing district, Tesner said. In the same time, SCAFD personnel spent 925 hours babysitting downed power lines, he said.

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