Why Don't Chiefs Stay?
Chuck Hubbard and the secret history of a national standard
From the January, 2014 issue
"I found out when everybody else did," says mayor John Hieftje of fire chief Chuck Hubbard's abrupt announcement that he will retire at the end of January. "I don't know why. I suspect he'll make a statement at some point."
Hubbard didn't return calls and emails from the Observer after his December announcement. One obvious question is why he's choosing to leave just two years after taking the job--especially since he would've received a higher pension if he'd stayed another year.
"He's been with the department for twenty-eight years," says the mayor. "That's a long time, and he's given good service to the city. And remember, he could've retired two years ago but chose to stay and become chief."
To Hieftje, though, "the real question is, why don't fire chiefs stay around very long? The answer is that they come in and feel they want to change things and make them the way they want them, and they find out very quickly that neither the city administrator nor the chief control the fire department. The [union] contract controls everything at the fire department, and to make changes in the contract costs a lot of money and takes a long time. Chiefs who think they're going to change something very quickly find out."
As Hubbard found out, the public doesn't necessarily want change, either. Last year, he put forth a reorganization plan that would have put four firefighters on the scene of an alarm in five minutes 90 percent of the time rather than the current average of seven minutes--without increasing staff or expense.
The plan addressed concerns that the AAFD wasn't meeting national standards for response times--an issue that surfaced repeatedly in last year's election.
"We need more firefighters," charged Jane Lumm in her Ward Two reelection campaign. "They're not meeting federal standards."
"The fire chief admits he doesn't have enough firefighters to meet national standards," asserted Jack Eaton in his bid in the Fourth Ward.
Lumm and Eaton, who both
won their council races, were citing National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710. It calls for departments to get four firefighters to the scene of an alarm within four minutes 90 percent of the time.
As Eaton says, Hubbard readily admits his department doesn't meet Standard 1710. "We average getting four firefighters to the scene within four minutes approximately 35 percent of the time currently," he emails. He has eighty-six firefighters this year and an annual budget of $13.9 million. To comply with Standard 1710, Hubbard estimates, he'd need 110 firefighters and $16 million.
Right now, it takes two trucks--usually coming from different stations--to meet the four-person standard. Hubbard's plan would have put four firefighters, rather than three, on each truck. To accomplish that, though, he stepped on a political landmine: his plan would have closed two of the city's five fire stations.
As councilmember Chuck Warpehoski points out, "He tried to push an improved station plan that would've gotten us closer to the NFPA standard, and that got shot down."
Between 2000 and 2011, fire staffing was cut 35 percent, from 126 firefighters to eighty-two. That was even more than the overall 30 percent city staff reduction during that period. It's since increased slightly to the current eighty-six--and Hieftje, who led the reductions, doesn't see the need for any more. "We have enough firefighters now," he says, "because we have far, far fewer fires than we used to."
Last fall, before his announcement, Chief Hubbard discussed fire staffing at length with the Observer--and he agreed with the mayor.
Hubbard cites NFPA data that shows the number of fires in Michigan decreased 60 percent between 1977 and 2010, from 82,000 to 33,000. Ann Arbor started to keep statistics only in 2003, but Hubbard thinks its experience is similar. In the last ten years, the department has responded to between fifty-four and ninety "structure fires"--in buildings, as opposed to outdoors--per year.
Even in the worst years, that's fewer than two fires a week. But fire trucks don't respond only--or even mainly--to fires. According to the NFPA, fire calls made up just 4 percent of all runs in cities of more than 50,000 in 2008. The great majority were medical calls.
"Ann Arbor's response experience is comparable to the national data," Hubbard emailed. "Approximately 5 percent of calls [are serious enough to] require the city to respond with the tower truck. While four firefighters is the NFPA benchmark for a fire response, sending three firefighters is sufficient response for the large majority of Ann Arbor calls. And Ann Arbor gets three firefighters to respond within four minutes with approximately 90 percent frequency."
That's enough for the city's needs, Hubbard added in an October interview. "Sure, I want more guys if I can get 'em", he says. "But eighty-six is sufficient to do what we're charged to do."
If councilmembers were serious about meeting Standard 1710, Hubbard says, they would have endorsed his plan.
"If you want to catch up to the standard, we can better reach it if three stations were open and staff consolidated," he says. "But my plan wasn't perceived the way I intended it. Everybody hated me. My question to them was: what's the priority, fire or medical or both? From the public meetings we held, I'd say medical is the concern."
"I appreciate the chief coming up with a plan," says Hieftje, "but I pulled the plug on it. The plan was based on fighting fires, but most of what the fire department does is assist Huron Valley Ambulance. Firefighting is their biggest job, but they don't spend a lot of time at it."
Hubbard believes part of the reason his plan failed was that citizens equate more fire stations with quicker response times. "People see an open fire station, and they feel safer," he smiles.
But it wasn't just public criticism that led Hieftje to pull the plug on Hubbard's plan. He's less impressed than Lumm and Eaton are with Standard 1710. The "four people, four minutes" requirement, he says, is "not an effective measure and not really a national standard."
The NFPA, he notes, is not a governmental body--it's "a trade organization run [by] firefighters and fire chiefs."
Here, too, the chief backs the mayor. "NFPA standards are not laws," says Hubbard. "They're guidelines. How they came to be I have no idea."
Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski knows how Standard 1710 came to be. During his first council campaign in 2012, he met a resident who was present at the creation of Standard 1710: recently retired firefighter Doug Warsinski.
Now a fire inspector in the insurance industry, Warsinski worked for the AAFD from 1995 until 2011 and for the eight years before that in Ypsilanti Township's department. He's also a longtime NFPA member. "I joined in 1998," he recalls. At the time, the group's leadership was promoting Standard 1200. It also contained the four-men-in-four-minutes goal, but unlike 1710, it would have applied to both professional and volunteer fire departments.
As Warsinski explains it, that's why it failed to pass: "city managers didn't like it because it meant hiring more firefighters, and volunteer firefighters didn't like it because there was no way they could make the time requirements, so 1200 died."
After that, Warsinski says, the NPFA recruited 2,500 new members--all firefighter union members and their spouses. Then, at the group's 2001 meeting, the leadership proposed Standard 1710. Unlike 1200, it applied only to professional departments. A different proposal, Standard 1720, covered volunteer departments--and instead of four minutes, they had seven minutes to get four firefighters to the scene.
That took the volunteers out of the fight. Since meeting the new standard would require greatly increasing their staffs, city managers remained opposed--but they were badly outnumbered. With the NFPA's new firefighter members voting in favor, both standards passed.
Afterward, the National League of Cities issued a press release pointing out that there was no empirical evidence that the standard would either reduce fire losses or improve the safety of fire personnel. But ever since, firefighters unions have pointed to NFPA Standard 1710 as proof that their departments are understaffed.
Warsinski thought the double standard created by 1710 and 1720 "was ludicrous. There was no rationale given" for letting volunteer departments take almost twice as long to respond to an alarm. Chief Hubbard says the professional standard is all but impossible to achieve. "Very few meet the standard--maybe Chicago or New York. You'd have to have trucks staffed with four people, and enough of them stationed around the city." With five open stations plus a closed station on Stadium near Packard, Ann Arbor's department has sufficient locations to meet the standard. What it lacks is two dozen more firefighters.
Hieftje points out that in the rare serious fire, the city already has access to dozens more firefighters, through mutual aid agreements with the city of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield, Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti townships.
"A fire department likes insurance," says the mayor. "It doesn't happen often that we need it, and when we do, we can count on our friends. We had a fire in my neighborhood, and four departments were there."
"Saying we need to hire more firefighters is easy campaign rhetoric," Chuck Warpehoski says. "The real questions are what reduces injury and loss of life and what reduces property damage?"
According to Doug Warsinski, it's not open fire stations. Whatever its faults, Warsinski says, at least Standard 1710 "started as a performance-based design, and that was good because before it was all location based. People thought if you had enough stations around the city so it was evenly covered, you'd be OK. But that's not the way it works, and 1710 allows you to put your resources where the trouble is--and it's not in a new subdivision. Fires don't occur randomly. There are social and economic factors involved, and poor urban people living in old housing stock have a lot more fires."
Standard 1710's staff and time requirements, on the other hand, don't impress him at all. Asked if not meeting the four-minute standard should worry Ann Arborites, Warsinski laughs. "Absolutely not!" He believes a better way to evaluate the AAFD's response time is to compare it to the national average of eight to nine minutes. By that standard, Ann Arbor is doing well.
Councilmember Warpehoski doesn't see much value in hiring more firefighters just to meet an arbitrary standard--especially at a time when "nationally, fire safety is increasing significantly. The risk of dying in a fire dropped 75 percent since 1977 according to the San Jose [fire department's 2011] study, and it's about the same here in Ann Arbor.
"The San Jose study shows that getting to a fire in closer to four minutes would have some marginal impact on property damage, like about $500 for every minute. So for two million dollars in staffing expenses, we'd save that $500 per minute. Is that the best improvement in public safety we can hope for?
"If we looked at detection time, that might have bigger impact," Warpehoski continues. "What if, instead of twenty-four more firefighters, we hired three more fire inspectors to install more smoke detectors? There's currently no discussion at council of [resident] education and the importance of smoke detectors."
Warsinski agrees. Asked the most effective way to reduce the severity of fires, he replies, "Smoke detectors."
"Economic growth and new development are what prevent fires," Warsinski continues. "In 1970, Ann Arbor was 2 percent sprinklered. A few years ago it was up to 60 percent in the downtown central business district because of all the new construction and safer building codes."
Under Chuck Hubbard, the AAFD has also given more attention to fire prevention. "When I came into this position [in 2011], I wanted to make a priority out of preventing fires," the outgoing chief recalls, "so I tripled inspections.
"Smoke detectors make a huge difference. Fires occur at night when you're asleep, and by the time you hear [the fire], the smoke is so thick you can't find your way out, and you die. And you won't burn to death. The poison in the smoke is what kills you. Smoke detectors are the number one lifesaver out there--and carbon monoxide detectors. It's a gas, so you can't smell it or see it, so you just die."
Warpehoski believes that "the most potential for improving fire safety [is] improved education. ... What makes sense is an enhanced residential program targeting neighborhoods with older home stock, and rental housing in student areas that lacks modern fire suppression. If we want bang for the buck, that's where we're gonna get it."
"We need more fire education," Warsinski agrees. "It would be a better use of funds. We could even send out guys from the station to knock on doors. They're not that busy, and imagine if a truck pulled up in your neighborhood, and firefighters came to your door and said, 'We're here to tell you about smoke detectors'!"
Hieftje says that in mid-December city administrator Steve Powers and public safety head John Seto hadn't decided who'll replace Hubbard in the short term--"I suspect it'll be the deputy chief"--while they search for a long-term replacement.
Warpehoski hopes that this time, they'll find a chief who's in it for the long haul. "We need a settled fire chief," he says, "someone who can do the day-to-day management and step back and look at the big picture."
In setting the new chief's priorities, council will need to do the same. Says Hieftje, "I expect we'll have a robust conversation about that on council in the months to come."
[Originally published in January, 2014.]