The Ann Arbor Fire Department may go up in smoke this afternoon. The City Council will vote today on the two-year budget recommendation proposed by former City Administrator Roger Fraser. Featuring some of the steepest cuts to city employees in recent years, Fraser’s proposal slashes the city’s fire department, which has already been the subject of previous austerity measures. The budget’s vast reduction in the number of local firefighters, along with cutbacks in equipment and stations, compromises the safety of students and residents alike. The City Council should not pass this budget as it will cripple an already-depleted fire department.
Currently, Ann Arbor employs 89 firefighters, who service a city with a population of 110,000 — significantly less than cities with similar populations. One of these cities, Lansing, employs 200 firefighters. The new budget will leave the Ann Arbor Fire Department with only 77 positions, continuing the downward trend in both standards and funding for the fire department. The amount of fire fighters staffed per day has dropped from 24 in the 1990s to 15 in 2011. In response to the personnel reduction, the department has been forced to shut down stations and fire trucks on a rotating basis. The new budget will further degrade the quality of protection for University students and the Ann Arbor population as a whole.
The most significant result of these cuts is the increase in response time to emergencies, which has already been rising due to previous cuts. As response times will inevitably increase, the safety of Ann Arbor will continue to be compromised. According to Matt Schroeder, president of the Ann Arbor firefighter’s union, there have been 12 deaths from fires in Ann Arbor since 2006. Certainly a fire department operating with more staff, fire stations and trucks would have at least had a better chance of saving these lives. Trivial attempts to reduce the amount of fires, like the recent couch ban will have little effect on fire safety, whereas dramatic cuts like this will undoubtedly make fires more dangerous.
In addition to residents of the city, the safety of the University will be diminished by these severe cuts. The population count mentioned above does not take into account the roughly 40,000 people at the University. If the fire department is already understaffed, it is gravely undermanned when the population of the University is considered. It may have its own police force, but cuts to the fire department cannot be counteracted by the University. The city of Ann Arbor, which benefits immensely from the University, must make sure it provides sufficient fire safety for students.
In tough economic times it may be unavoidable to curtail certain government expenditures, but cutting vital safety services in such drastic ways undermines the primary purpose of government — to protect its citizens. The city found money to construct a massive underground parking structure and has budgeted over $345,000 for new bathrooms in City Hall. Surely something else can be sacrificed in the budget that won’t have such severe consequences. For the safety of everyone living in Ann Arbor, whether they live here permanently or temporarily as students, the proposed cuts to the fire department must be thrown out.