It’s hard to miss them: dozens of Ann Arbor’s off-duty firemen, picketing in the cold on Huron Street outside City Hall. After examining its fiscal situation, the city found that due to overtime expenditures nearing $1.2 million, the Ann Arbor Fire Department would land over budget some $700,000. To correct the problem, a plan was implemented on Jan. 6, temporarily shutting down one of the cities six fire stations if operation causes some of the firefighters to work overtime. Granted, bigger is not always better, even when the issue at stake is as important as a town’s fire protection services. Government services are expensive, but funding them adequately is essential for the public’s well-being and, in this case, safety.

The first real test of the city’s new plan played out at a large fire that engulfed the Wells-Babcock Apartment Complex on Jan. 27. When responding to the call, 15 firefighters and five trucks were able to arrive within 10 minutes. The fire was extinguished, and it seemed apparent to the city that the plan worked as promised.

However, the city cannot argue that its overtime policy did not in some way hamper rescue operations. As a result of this policy, the AAFD had three fewer firefighters and one fewer truck with which to fight the fire and handle other emergency calls. While the blaze was being fought, one lone fire truck was left to deal with all calls from the rest of the city for nearly two full hours. This truck responded to nine calls that day, many of them medical in nature. The strain was so great that when a call came in from Briarwood Circle concerning an unconscious person, fire dispatch didn’t have a truck to send.

Fire units should be able to respond to dire medical calls, as their response times are usually faster – crucial in a life or death situation. Unfortunately, the city’s overtime policy left Huron Valley Ambulance, whose average response times are several minutes slower, to arrive and treat the individual. This is an extreme limitation to the AAFD’s ability to deal with multiple scenarios simultaneously and a disregard to the safety of Ann Arbor citizens.

Even at the scene of the fire, the initial response of the AAFD could have been made stronger by the presence of another truck. The events of Jan. 27, as serious as they were, could have been worse. The fire ultimately did not cause any serious injuries, but this cannot be the bar by which we measure the success or failure of this initiative. We should measure and fund our emergency services to be cost effective, but also able to handle the needs of the city at uncommon levels of emergency. This does not mean the city should continue to pay huge sums in overtime; it should simply hire the firefighters necessary to keep the ones we do have off overtime. The bottom line as it concerns emergency services should not be dollars; it should be the reasonable and efficient protection of Ann Arbor citizens.

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