By Kaye Bennett
About 30 citizens – many of them firefighters and emergency medical responders – gathered at the March 16 meeting of the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority (SKCFA) to hear recommendations that could affect how they do their jobs. The meeting was moved from its normal venue at the EMS station in Vicksburg, to the Schoolcraft Township Hall, to accommodate the large number of people interested in learning about the report. The meeting started on a dark note with a power outage caused by high winds. A backup generator quickly lit up the proceedings.
Randy Smith, Brady Township supervisor, chaired the meeting and explained that the six governmental bodies (the townships of Wakeshma, Prairie Ronde, Brady and Schoolcraft and the villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg) that combined in 1999 to provide fire services under the fire authority had decided that a study could best help them understand how to improve the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness. With funding from the Vicksburg Community Foundation, the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) was hired in April 2015. It has been doing interviews and data analysis since then.
Tom Wieczorek, CPSM director, said it was “very unusual” for a community the size of this one to undertake a study of this magnitude. “There were no huge surprises” in what his company found, he said, but it was gratifying to find a public body that was willing to talk. “A lot of times reports just end up sitting on shelves,” said Wieczorek, himself a former fire chief and city manager. This time, he believes, the recommendations will be used to provide even better service to the community.
The resulting report, received by the board just days before the meeting, was 82 pages long and included 49 recommendations. Recommendations fall into three main areas: process improvement, community risk reduction and command.
Wieczorek stressed that one of the most important things a fire department can do is to help a community move from firefighting to fire prevention. Risk reduction can be achieved by effective use of smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. In some communities, he said, fire personnel go door-to-door to check homeowner’s smoke detectors. He also stressed the importance of a comprehensive automated external defibrillator (AED) program in every community.
In this area, as across the country, the decreasing number of people who are willing to volunteer as firefighters is a major problem, said Wieczorek. Added to the increasing number of emergency calls being received (about two to three per day in this area) and the fact that firefighters are also responding to most EMS calls, SKCFA is experiencing a severe shortage of volunteers. The CPSM report suggests changes in dispatch procedures as well an enhanced efforts to attract, train and retain more volunteers to deal with this. Our area currently has about 8 to 10 volunteers who respond to calls, Wieczorek said. Given the number of calls we receive, we should have between 40 and 50, he added.
Finally, the CPSM report recommended a restructuring of responsibilities, where the fire chief’s position would be totally administrative. Currently, due to the low number of volunteers, the fire chief himself often goes out on calls, CPSM found.
Some of the report’s recommendations, Smith pointed out, have already been implemented and others are outside the control of the SKCFA. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board unanimously voted to consider the remaining recommendations and to reconvene at a future date to discuss next steps.
The consultants, said Fire Chief Tracy McMillan, did a good job of analyzing the information they had. Like Smith, McMillan stresses that many of the recommendations have already been implemented. Of the remaining ones, he’s confident that those the SKCFA has control over will be considered. The end result, says McMillan, “is that it’s all about giving the best service we can to the community we serve.”
In other business, Vicksburg resident Denny Olson asked the Board to investigate ways to notify the public when emergency warning sirens go off due to malfunction. Each time that has happened, he said, it has resulted in as many as 150 calls in 10 minutes, which tie up the lines for true emergencies. The Board agreed to look into the situation. The resignation of Chad Schippers and the recommendation to hire John Baker as a paid, on-call firefighter were approved, and it was agreed to once again hire the area accounting firm of Siegfried Crandall to perform the 2015-16 financial audit.