Facing a $700,000 deficit within the Ann
Arbor Fire Department in January 2003, the city implemented a new
policy that temporarily closed one of the city’s six fire
stations in an effort to keep staff from working overtime. The
change became more than temporary, as later in the year, the
station on E. Stadium Boulevard closed permanently. At the time the
cuts were made, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje assured both the fire
department and city that the reductions were routine housekeeping
— that the city was adapting its overtime policies to the
changing needs of the city.

Laura Wong

Surprisingly, these needs seemed to have changed again over the
past year, as funding for the fire department fell under the knife.
In the process of trimming $1.1 million in police, fire and
emergency management funding, the city has temporarily reduced the
number of on-duty firefighters during peak hours from 20 to 18. The
cuts also require the AAFD to eliminate an additional 10 positions
from its staff. While budget shortfalls statewide have forced local
governments to tighten their belts, priority must be given to those
services that perform emergency or life-saving services. As such,
the AAFD must be given the funding to prepare for the worst case.
The “wait and see” attitude among city officials
regarding these trial changes in fire funding only sets the stage
for disaster.

City Councilmember Kim Groome (D-Ward 1) explained, “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.” The City
Council cannot risk trial and error with the city’s fire
protection. If these new cuts have significantly damaged the
AAFD’s ability to protect the city adequately, this will only
become evident after the department proves unable to respond to an
incident, putting citizens at risk.

Despite Groome’s reservations, other city officials still
maintain the cuts will not significantly impact the fire
department’s ability to accommodate the city’s needs.
But a well-publicized fire in January 2003 at the Wells-Babcock
Apartment Complex nearly strained the AAFD to the breaking point. A
single truck was left to handle the nine calls that came in while
the rest of the department was fighting the blaze, leading to
slower response times and spreading the department’s
resources paper thin.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in the fire, but the
incident was a solemn reminder that fire remains a risk in even the
most modern of cities and that further reductions in funding would
only worsen the AAFD’s ability to respond to other similar
incidents. Unfortunately, city officials have turned a blind eye.
Ann Arbor residents should be aware of the financial situation the
AAFD and other emergency services are facing. Already, the
AAFD’s ability to handle multiple calls simultaneously has
been reduced. These new cuts will only pour gasoline on the
fire.

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