For the second straight year, the minimum number of firefighters
on duty is being reduced.

In response to proposed city budget cuts, the Ann Arbor Fire
Department starting today will reduce the minimum number of
firefighters on duty from 20 to 18 during weekday daytime
hours.

The minimum number of firefighters on duty will be 17 on
weekends and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays, according to
inter-department documents.

The reduction comes after the city administrator released a plan
Saturday to cut in half the city’s anticipated $5.7 million
deficit for fiscal year 2004-05. The plan includes trimming about
$1.1 million in funds for police, fire and emergency management,
said Daniel Oates, Ann Arbor police chief and safety services
administrator.

In addition to dropping the minimum number of firefighters on
duty to curtail overtime costs, the fire department would also have
to eliminate 14 of 130 positions, Oates said. Two of those are
currently vacant, and two would transition to other city positions,
he said.

Since the city will not officially adopt the budget until the
second meeting in May, the preliminary proposal will continue to be
a topic under discussion, he added.

AAFD Captain Mike French said the reductions will hurt a
department that is already understaffed. “If there’s a
decrease in staffing, there’ll be a decrease in service and
there will be a higher risk of an incident occurring and us being
understaffed,” he said.

He said he used to be able to bring in firefighters overtime to
fill vacant slots, but now only the people who come in on local
duty will staff the trucks.

Oates said cutting the fire department is just one of the tough
decisions the city government is facing in the days ahead, but that
the department will still be able to function effectively.

“We would much rather have these firefighters and not have
to lay them off — we’d like to because it increases our
flexibility. However, we believe we can protect the city even if we
do these cuts,” he said. “We’re going to keep
five fire stations open and, given the very difficult fiscal times
we are in, we think this is a workable solution if we have to make
cuts. We’re facing the same problems every municipality in
Michigan is facing right now — we have to live within our
means and prioritize services.”

French said the new minimum staff requirements might not be
enough to carry out all the operations that need to happen
simultaneously if there is a fire and other calls come in at the
same time.

Responding to plans to have fewer firefighters on duty during
weekends and weekdays after 7 p.m., he added that it is impossible
to predict when someone will call.

“It’s kind of a game of Russian roulette,” he
said. “The situation is, we don’t have fires every five
minutes. If we did we could staff for it. … It’s
pretty much a game of ‘Do we need everybody all the time, or
can we take a chance and have fewer in the evening and more during
the day?’ ”

Ann Arbor City Council member Bob Johnson (D–Ward 1) said
he does not think the changes in the fire department will affect
the community, as the plan that goes into effect today basically
eliminates overtime.

“There have been reductions in staff but thus far the
response time is not different. It used to be a few minutes,
it’s still a few minutes,” he said.

With an outdated staffing model written into the contract 20
years ago when fires were more frequent, he said, the model can
change because the needs of the times have changed.

“In the 1980s, there were a lot more fires than there are
now, and it’s true everywhere in the country because of
better building codes and maybe better awareness. But nevertheless
we have the same size fire department,” he said.

Johnson added that although it is not currently being discussed
by the City Council, places like Troy have volunteer fire
departments, an extreme but functional response to the fact that
with reduced numbers of calls, the job of a firefighter has
changed.

“Obviously we still need a fire department because even if
there’s only three or four fires a year, somebody has to go
put them out. … But the question is, if much of the time
they’re waiting, what’s the best model for dealing with
this?” he said.

“Big cities, and Troy is much bigger than Ann Arbor, get
along without a full-time staff. They have a volunteer fire
department.”

The fire department, which has been working without a contract
for almost two years, is currently in transition. Questions of
funding and resources, as well as how the contract and staffing
will be structured, are at the forefront of the discussion
regarding the department’s future, Oates said, and many
issues still need to be resolved.

Additionally, a year ago cost-cutting efforts resulted in the
now-permanent closure of Station No. 2 at East Stadium Boulevard
and Packard Road. In January 2003, the minimum number of on-duty
firefighters was 24.

Cuts in staff for various departments, including the fire
department, are preliminary, said City Council member Kim Groome
(D-Ward 1).

“I think those numbers that need to be laid off could go
down, not just in the fire but in every department as we get closer
to the real projected gaps in funding, the real projected
deficit,” she said, adding that the budget will not likely be
presented until mid-April.

Groome said she sees the changes that start today as part of an
ongoing process to find the most efficient way to cut costs while
still ensuring the safety of the people in Ann Arbor.

“I think the idea is that they’ll try it on a short
term basis and see if it’s efficient — it’s sort
of reshaping a large important part of city government in a
baby-step sort of way so we can see what sort of impact each step
has,” she said.

Since Station 2 was closed, overtime decreased by about 19,000
hours, and cutting the number needed on a shift is another overtime
reduction option, she said.

“I think this is seen as ‘Let’s see how this
works’ and if it works well, we’ll make it a permanent
piece, and if it doesn’t work well we can adjust it,”
she said.

The current city budget allotted 832 permanent staff positions
within the city, 240 of which are in the police department.

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