Fire and Pain
Have staff cuts made the city less safe?
Lieutenant Scott Robertson loved his life as a member of the Ann Arbor Fire Department.
"I hired in on November 10, 1985," says the forty-nine-year-old. "In fact, the current chief and I, we started on the same day. I spent half of my career at Station One downtown and half at Station Three out on Jackson by Vets Park. And I loved going to work every single day for twenty-five years."
Every day but the last. "I very reluctantly ended my employment with the fire department, and July 2 was my last day. My long-term goal was another six years, but a lot of factors led to me leaving, one of which was saving somebody else's job."
When Robertson started, Ann Arbor employed 106 firefighters. Today, it has seventy-two. Most positions were eliminated through attrition during the citywide staff cuts that began soon after mayor John Hieftje's election in 2000. If Robertson hadn't left when he did, though, the city would have laid off a younger officer with less seniority.
Robertson sounds bitter about those changes.
"I was a mid-level manager, and I was certainly not involved in policy. But actions speak louder than words, and the city has slowly and methodically reduced fire services. Over the last ten years, we've had fewer trucks, fewer stations, and fewer people.
"We had been a great department, well managed and well respected," Robertson says with a shudder in his voice. "For us to watch that be dismantled, to have the heart and soul ripped out of the department, is just a horrible tragedy."
When Robertson speaks of the department's heart and soul, he means it. "You get a whole new extended family when you join the fire department," he explains. "You become closer than cousins. You work a twenty-four-hour shift, and every day all day you're elbow-to-elbow washing the trucks and preparing the meals.
Not that everything is touchy feely. "I found out very quickly that there's a certain way you do
things in the fire department, and you dare not do it some other way," Robertson says. "It's very military-like. When you see drill instructors in the movies break the recruit down, well, it's like that, not as physical, but the verbal!"
Robertson wouldn't have had it any other way. "It molds character. When I'm in the station and I'm told to do something, and I don't do it right away, I catch all sorts of hell. It can be mean and cruel, but the lessons learned in the station become valuable hours later when you're on the scene and somebody barks an order: you do it!"
And he's still thrilled by the memories. "I was assigned the rescue truck in Station One and went on every call on my shift: every fire, every medical, every heart attack, every car crash, everything. I was twenty-five, twenty-six years old, and it'd be a Friday night in the summer, and I'd just be chomping at the bit to go out on a call!" That's a core firefighter truth: they love their life-saving, death-defying job with a love few can understand but most can admire.
Robertson's love has taken a beating over the last decade. "Ann Arbor was a front-rank department, but now we have less to be proud of and more to be ashamed of. When your brother is being laid off, and they're having an unveiling ceremony for a $750,000 piece of artwork [City Hall's water sculpture] right outside your front window, it's a very, very bitter pill to swallow."
Robertson believes it's not just the firefighters who've lost something as the department has shrunk. "When I worked out of downtown, if we emptied that station, we put out seventeen people in four trucks and a pickup truck. Right now today in the whole city, if you emptied every fire station, the number would be sixteen. Back then, you had more firefighters showing up from one station than you do today from the whole city!"
Others recall those numbers differently, but no one disputes Robertson's larger point: the AAFD is down one station, four trucks, and thirty employees from ten years ago. Earlier this year the city started a rolling blackout of stations Three through Six: closing one station a day and having Station One plus the other three pick up the slack.
For the retired lieutenant, this is just plain wrong, and he believes it's changed the department's firefighting strategy for the worse. "There are two ways to fight a fire: aggressively, where you go in and fight it and try to save the building, or defensively, where you stay outside and point a hose at it and hope to drown it and probably lose the building. We were aggressive. Now we're defensive. Now you have to get the image of an old-school, macho firefighter out of your head."
For Robertson, "the fire on North Main [at the Sheesh restaurant in August] is a good example of not having enough people get there quickly enough. If we had three crews on three floors, we could have caught that one. But we only had two crews on two floors. That's why it took so long to get it under control. They did the best with what they had, but if we had more stations and more trucks, it would have made a difference."
If true, that would validate warnings issued by the city's last two fire chiefs. When Sam Hopkins resigned in 2009, he wrote in his farewell letter to the department that "the decision makers are planning to ask our members to sacrifice so that this city can attempt to recover economic stability going forward. In leaving, I pray that your safety and the safety of this beautiful city isn't part of the casualties of your sacrifice."
Hopkins' successor, Dominic Lanza, lasted just a year--and wrote his own farewell letter forecasting dire consequences. "Cuts in fire and police services have led to serious issues," Lanza wrote. "Fire staffing needs to be increased by at least twenty firefighters to provide adequate protection." Instead, the city eliminated seven more positions in the latest budget, though Robertson's retirement did save a younger firefighter's job.
That raises a fundamental question: does the smaller AAFD still respond fast and hard enough to fulfill a fire department's prime mission to stop fires and save lives? A current firefighter, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, contends it doesn't, and cites the fatality at last April's fire at a house on South State Street as proof.
"I see the trend towards fewer firefighters continuing, and I predict it'll take a dramatic event to end it," this firefighter says. "Somebody needs to die. But then somebody did die: Renden Lemasters died in the State Street fire last year. And it could have been prevented. Station Two used to sit right down the street on Stadium."
Is it true that Renden Lemaster's death was a preventable tragedy? Chuck Hubbard doesn't believe so. Though he started on the same day as Scott Robertson, Hubbard's career followed a different path: while Robertson's ended in unwilling retirement this summer, Hubbard made chief.
Interviewed in his office in Station One looking out on the new police-courts building, Hubbard is a hard-muscled man with closely cropped hair. "I was born in Detroit in 1959," Hubbard says crisply, "went to EMU, graduated in June of '85, and joined the department that November. I'd always wanted to do it ever since I was a kid, the same as all firefighters. It's something you've got to do." That's another core firefighter truth: their job isn't a career, it's a calling.
Like Robertson, Hubbard was first assigned to Station One. His recollection of the staffing levels at the time is that "we had five trucks here then with twelve firefighters per shift: two in the tower [truck], two on the engine, four on the downtown ladder, four on the rescue, and one battalion chief in the pickup." But though his tally doesn't support Robertson's recollection that Station One alone had more firefighters than the whole city has now, he's the last to dispute that the numbers are way down: "We've got three firemen with each truck now, and five stations with one truck at each station except downtown," says Hubbard. "Downtown, we've got three vehicles: the pumper, the tower, and the command vehicle. That makes eighteen firefighters total plus the battalion chief per shift." That's 25 percent fewer than when he hired in: "Back then, we had six stations altogether with twenty-four firefighters per shift."
Robertson and the anonymous current firefighter say that reduction has hurt the department's ability to respond to the recent fires on North Main and State streets. Hubbard says it didn't. He begins his explanation by reciting the facts.
"The fire at 207 North Main on August 22, 2011 was called in at 11:24. The first two trucks arrived from Station One at 11:27. Four firefighters arrived with the trucks, and two of them entered the building at that time. Stations Three, Four, Five, and Six were notified at 11:28, and each sent a truck that arrived at 11:30, and twelve more firefighters arrived with these trucks. Trucks from Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Pittsfield Township arrived shortly after that--I don't have the exact time--with sixteen additional firefighters. Altogether fifty-one firefighters and thirteen trucks were there.
"What happened was our guys got there, went in, and knocked down the fire," continues Hubbard. "It was an old-time cooking fire. They were heating up the grease, and it caught on fire. If they didn't have a modern exhaust system under the hood, that fire would have gone through the roof!"
The chief also explains why his crews were there so long. "Our guys thought they got it, but it started breaking out in other places. That's an old building, and the fire went up behind the walls and got between the floors. So we had to stay and make sure it really was out." Asked if having more trucks get there quicker would have helped, Hubbard replies: "They got to the fire in three minutes, plenty fast enough for them to knock it down, which they did. More crews wouldn't have helped, because they didn't know the fire was in the walls until after plenty of crews were already there."
The South State fire was the fourth near the U-M campus that night. The earlier fires had involved cars and trash cans, the third destroying three cars on Church Street. The fourth and last fire gutted the rental house on South State--and killed Lemasters, an EMU student from Dexter, as well as seriously injuring two others.
As with North Main, Hubbard begins by reciting the facts: "The fire at 928 South State on April 3, 2010, was called in at 5:17. The report was 'a bag on the porch is on fire.' The first trucks arrived at 5:23 from Station One with nine firefighters. The other stations were called at 5:19, and their trucks arrived at 5:26 with four firefighters on each truck. Two trucks from Pittsfield arrived shortly after us with eight firefighters. That's a total of ten trucks and thirty-seven firefighters."
Lemasters escaped the house but, critically burned, died later in the hospital. Would he have lived if the city hadn't closed Station Two in 2004? "Unless a fire truck was sitting outside that house," Hubbard responds, "nothing could have" saved Lemasters.
Fire marshal Kathleen Chamberlain arrived at the scene with the first fire truck. "I'd just come back to the station from investigating the last vehicle fire, and I followed the apparatus out of downtown," she says. "When we arrived, the entire front porch was ablaze, and the fire had gone up the roof to the dormer."
Later investigation showed that the fire started "in a trash container in close proximity to an upholstered sofa on the front porch," Chamberlain says. "Those upholstered pieces of furniture go up so quickly. The young man who reported the fire couldn't believe how fast it grew. The real horror of a fire is how fast it grows when it gets started."
Was Lemasters a victim of arson? The fire marshal wouldn't say so. "An arson is a fire that someone deliberately starts with the intention to cause destruction or bodily harm, and the evidence that someone deliberately started that fire isn't there, so we can't call it an arson." Chamberlain especially won't say so because "it's sensational. When people are hurt and people say it's arson, what a terrible thing for a family to have to see."
However, Chamberlain had no hesitation calling the night's three earlier fires arson. "Most definitely. We had reasons to believe that someone was deliberately setting those fires with the intention of destroying those specific vehicles. But was the [South State] fire an accident or was it a crime? I can't tell you. We don't have the evidence."
As Chamberlain says, without proof no one can say the State Street fire was deliberately set. But for whatever reason, the wave of fires ended with Lemasters' death. Through August, only four fires this year have been classified as arson, compared to nineteen last year. It seems the arsonist who set the other fires that night is either too scared to strike again or has moved on.
Chief Hubbard is the first to acknowledge that with fewer firefighters, the department can't do everything it once did. When he started out, he recalls, they'd dispatch a truck to every medical call, or even to kill a bat in your house. "Yes, we used to chase bats. We kept tennis rackets in the trucks for that purpose."
They also used to chase fire alarms. "We'd treat every alarm like it was a real fire and send three, four, five trucks," Hubbard says. "It was ridiculous. I've been on one fire alarm call in my entire career that actually turned out to be a fire." Now the department sends one truck to a fire alarm.
They also make fewer medical runs. All firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians, and in the late 1990s, the firefighters' union proposed that the city create its own ambulance service to displace the nonprofit Huron Valley Ambulance. Mayor Hieftje says the city looked into it, but "to buy ambulances would have been very expensive, and besides, the HVA does a fine job." HVA still calls on the fire department when their paramedics need help, but fire trucks no longer roll on every medical call.
Beyond handling bats and heart attacks, the AAFD needed more resources twenty-five years ago because "we had a lot more fires back then," Hubbard says. "We have less now because of better fire alarms, better fire suppression systems, and better construction materials and building inspection. Codes weren't as tight then."
To fill the gap left by thirty fewer employees, the AAFD has mutual aid pacts with the fire departments in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Pittsfield Township. Each department receives and provides backup for the others as needed.
"That's a hidden arrangement," says Robertson. "We're driving to Ypsilanti to put out fires, and when was the last time Ypsilanti helped us? I don't know. And council thinks this works: stripping your city's services to provide services to another city!"
The system isn't hidden: as Hubbard noted, other departments helped out at the North Main and State Street fires, and mutual aid calls have been listed in the city's monthly fire activity report for the last three years. For example, the report for August 2011 shows the AAFD assisted at six out-of-town fires and was assisted at six in-town fires by out-of-town departments.
"It's called the box alarm system," Hubbard explains. "If we get a call inside the city limits, we initially send three engines and an aerial truck and the battalion chief. If the officer arrives and sees that more is needed, he calls a second alarm that brings everybody in the city. If that's still not enough, he sends out a second alarm box to other fire departments. We get a fire engine and a tower from Pittsfield, a tower from Ypsilanti city, and one or two engines from Ypsilanti Township. And if that's still not enough, he can call a third alarm box that brings another Ypsilanti Township engine and the other Pittsfield tower truck."
"I set that up," says retired chief Lanza. "When they reduce resources, you've got to look around for other options. I'm not going to send firefighters in to die, and this was the only way I could guarantee we had the manpower."
The mutual aid system is controversial. Hieftje asserts, "Chief Lanza said he could protect the city with that system in place," while Lanza contends the mayor's statement is "not accurate. The city isn't adequately protected. It could leave Ann Arbor with significantly less resources."
Lanza nevertheless defends mutual aid as the lesser of two evils. "If we had a big fire like the one on North Main and didn't have that extra manpower available, half of [that block of] Main Street would have burned down."
The fate of the AAFD may be determined by a report the city commissioned from the International City/County Management Association; the group was asked to evaluate the state of the department and make recommendations for its future. "I believe two ex-fire department people are doing it, and one is a retired chief," says Hieftje. "But except to supply information, none of us had any input into the report. We've really maintained their independence."
Lanza doesn't believe it: "ICMA reports are usually slanted towards what management wants and believes." Promised first in early August, the report has been repeatedly delayed without explanation, but Lanza thinks he knows why: "They've already got it, and they're trying to make it say what they want it to say."
The mayor denies the city has the report and rejects the idea that officials would twist the results when they do get it. "We've been waiting for the study. We're looking at it for a complete reassessment of fire services, and if it says we need more firefighters, it'll be council's job to look at where we can cut to get more firefighters."
If the city did hire more firefighters, it would reverse a long-running trend: since 2001, the department's staff--in firefighters, officers, and support personnel--has shrunk from 111 full-time employees to eighty-one, a 27 percent reduction. But Hieftje says that other departments have given up as much or more: "Fire and police were 41 percent of our budget ten years ago. Now they're 50 percent. And we have 30 percent fewer employees working for the city now. If you look across the state, there're 2,100 fewer firefighters since 2001. No city has the same number of firefighters now. Lansing closed two stations. Jackson closed two of three stations."
The mayor is just warming up. "The real question is: do we need to continue to do things the same way we did them a hundred years ago when there's less need and the financial pressures are so great? We're looking at the value for residents, and it's a challenge to provide good fire service when you get so little cooperation from the union. We're going through the worst decade that anybody can remember, and they aren't helping. The attitude we get is 'we don't want to change anything.'"
This breaks Scott Robertson's heart. "They see us as disgruntled employees. But I've been a long-term, dedicated employee, and I just want the citizens to know that everything's not as good as it should be. And I want them to know that the firefighters left behind will do everything they can to take care of every problem thrown in front of them. That's what they do! That's what they know! They're not politicians. They're straight shooters. They want to help!"
There are two more core firefighter truths: they're totally dedicated to helping people and thoroughly traditionalist in their approach to their jobs. They can no more stop themselves from running into a burning building than they can accept the notion there's any justification for cutting firefighters--not even hard times and fewer fires.
Chuck Hubbard sees consolidation and regionalization as a possible way forward. "A better way to go would be a countywide fire services millage with a countywide fire department. It would be less expensive and much more efficient. Look at the borders. We have a station at the mall, and Pittsfield has a station at the airport half a mile away. If we had one department, that would be one station. There's already a Dexter-Scio regional fire authority forming up now, and we could have a southeast regional authority with Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Superior Township, Ann Arbor Township, and Pittsfield Township."
Scott Robertson is one step ahead of him. "I love this life and I don't want to give it up, so after I get back from backpacking in Mexico, I'm joining the Dexter-Scio area fire authority."
[Originally published in November, 2011.]