“You’ve heard of folklore, right?” asks Larry Collins, Ann Arbor’s new fire chief. “Well, there’s a thing called fire lore. What happens is, over the years, what the old-timers said takes on a life of its own.”

Collins isn’t disparaging old-timers. He’s one himself–at fifty-seven, he’s been a firefighter for thirty-five years. But he’s also been a chief, first in his hometown of Dayton, then in Brevard County, Florida, and one of the first things he did after moving into the chief’s office in the downtown fire station was to take part in the city’s strategic planning process. “Larry was able to join that toward the end,” says city administrator Steve Powers, who hired him,”and his participation caused him to say he’d do something similar” at the fire department.

His mission, Collins says, is “to take a look based on my past experience and understanding and see where we’re at and how we compare and see what direction we should be going. We’re going to do the research and develop a strategic plan and involve the community so [it] can express its expectations for emergency services and the cost for providing them.”

And to do that, he says, the AAFD will need more than fire lore. “If I’m going to talk intelligently about moving the organization forward, I need to look at that data and understand it and let it help us make good decisions,” he says. “And the way you get a sense of where you’re at is to develop metrics.”

What about the hottest of all fire metrics: how long it takes the department to get four firefighters to the scene from the moment the alarm comes in?

“You’re talking about the NFPA standard,” Collins replies, meaning National Fire Protection Association standard 1710, which calls for getting four firefighters to the scene within four minutes 90 percent of the time. Standard 1710 is often cited by folks who say the city needs more firefighters.

“There’s no requirement legally to meet the standard,” Collins replies. “They are simply standards. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding and misapplication of those standards and what they’re meant to do. Just because they’re accepted nationally doesn’t mean they’re right for us.”

Collins is refreshingly candid, because he doesn’t need the job. He retired as chief of Dayton’s department after thirty years there, then put in another five years running Brevard County’s fire and rescue service. It’s nine times the size of Ann Arbor’s department, with thirty-three fire stations and 800 firefighters, emergency medical techs, and ocean rescue personnel; Ann Arbor has four stations and eighty-seven firefighters. But last May, the county manager who hired him was replaced–and in September, Collins was fired. “I’m not saying he did a bad job,” Florida Today quoted the manager as saying. “It was just a philosophical difference.”

As Collins explains it, that “philosophical” difference was mainly about money: “We had some deficiencies: We were down in training. We were down in the right kinds of apparatus, and we were working on rebuilding stations. [The new manager] didn’t believe that that investment was the way we needed to go, and I believe strongly that it was.”

Collins wasn’t ready to retire, so when Ann Arbor’s top job came open, he applied. “Ann Arbor had a good reputation for a fire department,” he says. “What I found when I got here was you’ve got dedicated people here [who] are good at what they do, the equipment’s in good shape, and the community has strong leadership.”

He likes it that the city has “a capital fund for apparatus and trucks, and every year they put a little bit aside. That’s savvy business–as opposed to many communities where it’s ‘I bought that, and in twenty-five years I’ll worry about [replacing] it.’ That goes on more than you know.”

He also liked the location–“It’s only three hours away from Dayton, where my children, grandchildren, and folks are”–and he liked the town itself.

“The night I interviewed with the city administrator I looked around the downtown, and it was bustling. This was in November, and the week before I interviewed in Phoenix, and I can tell you that after five o’clock it’s like Dayton and other big cities: people go home, and they don’t come back in.”

One thing he wasn’t aware of was how many chiefs have passed through the position in recent years. Veteran Ann Arbor News investigation revealed that he’d received negative performance reviews from public safety director and police chief John Seto. And Hubbard was the third chief in the last ten years.

When told of that history, Collins doesn’t seem worried. “Most fire chiefs last five years,” he says, “and city managers and police chiefs aren’t much better.”

Former mayor John Hieftje blamed the turnover in part on frustration: chiefs arrived planning to make changes, only to discover that much of the department’s work is governed, not by the chief, but by the firefighters’ union contract. But again, Collins isn’t troubled. “In Ohio they have the same thing, and I was the union leader in Dayton, so I’m familiar with it.

“Here’s the thing: I sincerely believe that the men and women in this organization want to be the best they can be. I think they are willing to work to get there and do the smart things and change to make us that way. I really got that sense, and it’s one of the reasons I took the job.”

“Chief Collins comes with a wealth of experience in managing and leading a couple different organizations,” Seto says, “but also has the unique ability to speak to you on a personal level, the ability to talk to people and make them understand what fire service is all about.”

Steve Powers says he liked Collins’ combination of technical competence and management experience. “He had been part of the city of Dayton’s management team. That’s the model we have here. The chiefs and service area administrators help manage administrative operations and not just their area of responsibility. Larry was not only very capable of doing that but was seeking those opportunities out.”

Powers adds that he’s “not concerned with [Collins’] reasons for leaving Florida. And being fired in a dispute about funding doesn’t seem to have hurt the chief’s standing with Ann Arbor’s rank and file. The firefighter who showed me to Collins’ office in early February told me the new chief brings the department the two things it needs most: “stability and advocacy.”

What Collins doesn’t bring to the job are any preconceived ideas about what direction the department needs to go.

“Some folks are very critical because I don’t have a plan,” he admits. “But I’m doing the smart thing a manager does when they walk in from the outside: taking the time to get to know the community and the firefighters and to understand the culture and history.”

Powers says he expects Collins “to lead in a way that the firefighters feel engaged and aligned with the department. And I want him to manage in a way that we can confidently say to the council and community that you are being protected in a cost-effective way that’s smart with the resources given to the fire department.”

Asked if the department needs more firefighters, Collins answers, “I don’t know.” He’s also agnostic on the optimal number of fire stations. “Among the troops there’s a desire” to reopen the closed station at Stadium and Packard, he says. “It’s a very good location, but I don’t know what the level of activity is there. So I don’t know.”

Collins figures the only way to know if the department needs more firefighters and stations or improve its response time is to master its metrics. Fire lore is so deeply ingrained at the AAFD that it started keeping statistics only in 2003. Even now, the new chief says, “they haven’t been able to reach into the data and pull it out in any meaningful manner and make decisions based on that.” That’s Collins’ goal, and he says he’s “already got people working on it.”

Powers says not just the fire department but the whole city needs better data. “One of the outcomes of the strategic plan is identifying the need for us to be more consistent and comprehensive in the use of our measures. We need to make it part of how we do business.”

While Hubbard reported to Seto, Collins reports directly to Powers. “That was a stipulation of mine,” Collins says, “because it is very difficult for a sitting chief to manage both of those organizations, and there are issues here that a direct line to [the administrator] will help.”

“I fully supported [the change] because of the timing and the quality of the candidate,” says Seto. Powers, too, says he’s fine with the change. “It became clear early in our recruitment process that that would be important for the candidates we were trying to attract. But when I heard more about Larry, when I saw his resume and his application material, and certainly once I had the chance to meet with him and talk with him, I realized it would not only be a recruitment advantage, but he could really contribute at the leadership level.”

The administrator says Collins has already begun contributing. “He has been involved with developing the recommended FY ’16 and FY ’17 budget. What impressed me were some of the examples and the work he had done in Dayton with budget management and cost-reduction work.”

If nothing goes wrong, Collins says he’ll stay five or six years. “That’s a good period of time to get things heading a certain way. Things just don’t change on a dime–remember: is it fire lore or fire fact? We have to overcome that culture and history and look at the facts and make the right decisions.”

Powers hopes “he’ll stay as long as he and I both feel he’s being productive and as long as he and his wife are happy in Ann Arbor. He’s already drawing retirement, so he doesn’t need the job. He’s here because he wants to be.”

Seto’s Staying

Police chief John Seto is celebrating a couple of career milestones. March was the third anniversary of his initial appointment as interim chief. And in April, he’ll have put in twenty-five years with the AAPD.

Twenty-five years usually means retirement for safety service employees–and retiring after three years as chief would mean Seto could do so based on a chief’s rate of pay. His work has been especially harrowing in recent months, since an officer responding to a domestic violence call fatally shot a troubled woman wielding a knife. Seto requested a Michigan State Police investigation, which exonerated the officer, and prosecutor Brian Mackie concurred. Unconvinced, protestors disrupted a city council meeting in March with chants of “black lives matter.”

Seto calls the shooting “tragic,” and says questions from the public about the circumstances sped up plans to equip officers with body-worn video cameras. He’s also been attending “many” community meetings. Bur as for retiring, “I have no thoughts or intentions about doing anything different right now,” he says. While allowing that something could always change in the city, or what it wants in a police chief, “I have no aspirations to be in a bigger city or a different career.”

“John and I have talked,” says city administrator Steve Powers. “He most days is enjoying leading the department, and most days he enjoys being part of the city’s leadership team. He’s also a person of integrity, a person who enjoys working. And police officers are duty driven, and I think he feels a duty to continue to serve as the city’s police chief.”

What about Powers, who was courted last year by Dublin, Ohio? “I’ll stay as long as council believes I’m adding value and I believe I’m adding value,” he says. “If another opportunity comes along I’ll take a look it. But I’m not actively looking right now, and I’m happy most days here. I’ve got a few years to go before I can afford to retire. I don’t have a retirement from somewhere else, so I need to work.”