The end of January was huge for the AAFD: They arranged to take delivery of their first ambulance, advanced plans for a new eco-friendly station on Huron Pkwy., and fought one of the biggest fires in years.

The fire, in the Maynard St. building that housed Madras Masala restaurant and Vape City, “went to a third alarm,” says fire chief Mike Kennedy. “At the height of it, we had over fifty personnel operating on scene.” All eight city trucks were called out, and mutual aid agreements brought half a dozen more from Scio, Pittsfield, Ann Arbor, Northfield, and Superior townships, plus Saline.

The proposed replacement for Station Four on Huron Pkwy. would be the first carbon-neutral station in Michigan, with geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels—and a price tag north of $10 million. | Photo courtesy AAFD

The fire completely destroyed the building. Madras Masala’s owners say they plan to reopen, while the vape store is referring customers to its Ypsilanti location (see Marketplace Changes, p. 41). Fortunately, such destruction is rare. According to the AAFD’s draft 2022 annual report, only 5 percent of its runs last year were to fires. Six percent responded to hazardous conditions like downed wires, 9 percent were “service” calls such as helping a person who had fallen, and 12 percent were false alarms. Twenty-six percent were “good intent” calls (as opposed to false alarms) that were canceled prior to arrival. But by far the biggest share, 42 percent, were emergency medical service calls supporting Huron Valley Ambulance.

That’s why the first response to a heart attack could be a full-sized fire truck. But “since spring of 18, we have staffed a two-person pickup truck out of our Station One that’s handled EMS calls in the downtown area,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy got the pickup’s crew through reorganization, not by hiring new folks. But while Ann Arbor firefighters are licensed EMTs, the department isn’t licensed to transport patients, which sometimes kept them on the scene waiting for HVA. And in the last few years that could take up to an hour for nonurgent cases, because HVA, like ambulance services across the country, is chronically short-staffed. (“Paramedics Needed,” December 2021.)

So last summer, the fire department reached a six-month trial arrangement with HVA to borrow an ambulance to do transports staffed by the pickup’s crew (“Safety Net Ambulance,” February 2022). From June through January, they “transported thirty patients, which was actually lower than we had anticipated,” Kennedy says. That was enough to persuade city council to allocate $300,000 of the city’s American Rescue Plan money to buy an ambulance.

“We’re expecting our own ambulance to be in service in early March,” says Kennedy. They’re getting it from Emergency Vehicles Plus out of Holland. “The dealership had ordered an ambulance with the thought that they’ll be able to sell it to somebody. That somebody was us!

“The fire union’s been very supportive,” adds Kennedy. “They saw the need of us getting their members [out of] getting stuck on scenes for extended periods.” No more: the department’s already hit its goal of an “under-six-minute response time,” the chief says. “A lot of times we’re faster than that.”

Some firefighters are also paramedics, but the department itself isn’t licensed at a paramedic level, and Kennedy says there are no plans to change. “For us to upgrade to advanced life support is well over a million dollars. And that’s probably a very conservative number.”

 The numbers get even bigger as the department continues to work under Kennedy’s 2019 master plan to renovate, rebuild, or remove the city’s six stations. 

They recently finished renovating downtown Station One with all-new administrative and training areas plus eight private sleeping rooms. Firefighters previously “were in a 1970-style open bunk room,” says Kennedy. Now they can now “decompress and have some privacy.”

Also now in Station One is the fire prevention bureau formerly housed in the now-empty Station Two on Stadium near Packard. The chief says there is asbestos everywhere in that 1953 building, “from the ceiling to the floor tile to the walls to even the shingles.” Calling it “an absolute nightmare,” Kennedy thinks “the best thing is for that building to be demolished.” He expects that “at some point” council will transfer it to the housing commission for redevelopment.

Next up is Station Four, built in 1966 on Huron Pkwy. near Platt. It and Station Three on Jackson near Vets Park “are twins to each other, [but] for whatever reason Station Three has aged better than Station Four.” He says that Four is known in the department as “the penalty box.”

Its proposed replacement would be the first carbon-neutral station in Michigan, with geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels. The price tag is north of $10 million, but Kennedy says council’s reaction was “supportive … I think they were very excited about both the sustainability aspects of it and also having something that as a city structure was something to be proud of.”

The city planning commission has already approved the site plan, and Kennedy says the architects already are “working on final construction drawings. The turnaround at this point is pretty quick.” If it’s funded in the upcoming 2024 budget, the chief says a request for proposals could go out in late summer or early fall, with a contract awarded by the end of this year and construction starting early 2024 for completion in 2025.

Then it’ll be Station Five’s turn. Built in 1959 on North Campus, Kennedy says that will involve “a very big discussion with us and the university, because that building is on university property, and it’s owned by the university.” The city and university would need to figure out not just who would build a new station, but who would own and maintain it.

If they can’t work things out with the university, Kennedy says, “we then have to go and find land in that North Campus area where there’s very little land to be had. And the land acquisition would be several million on top of the building.”

Ann Arbor’s previous four fire chiefs averaged three years on the job. Kennedy, who joined in November 2018, acknowledges he’s “beat the averages.” He says he’s “got no plans on stopping. I absolutely love being part of this community and [being fire chief in Ann Arbor] is truly a dream come true.”