Michigan Firefighters Try To Prevent Cuts

When an alarm sounds, firefighters react.

This month, Royal Oak firefighters reacted to what many perceived as an alarm caused by talk of potential budget cuts and layoffs citywide.

Members of the Royal Oak Professional Firefighters Association, Local 431 of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, and their supporters spent a recent weekend distributing 26,400 glossy-colored flyers to homes, apartments and condominiums throughout the city.

The flyers, which cost the firefighters union $2,500 to print, urged residents to call city officials and ask them not to layoff firefighters. The department has proposed a $6.5-million budget for the 2004-05 year -- plus $507,000 for ambulance service.

The City Commission needs to trim $1.6 million from the 2004-05 fiscal year general fund budget, said Finance Director Rick Eva. Whether any of that will come from fire department trims or layoffs is not yet known. The commission must balance the budget and approve it by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2003-04.

At a recent presentation to the commission, Eva said the city may have to cut 25 of the city's full-time employees in 2004-05 and another 55 full-time workers in 2005-06 to make up for the city's projected deficit.

He also suggested that the commission look at changing the way the city delivered services by exploring such options as supplementing city workers with part-time employees or volunteers. He pointed to volunteers in Troy as an example.

Firefighters fear this may apply directly to the Royal Oak Fire Department because Troy has a volunteer fire department. But Eva said his comments applied to city employees as a whole.

"People can interpret it any way they want, and they interpreted it as talking about a volunteer fire department," Eva said. "My comments were for all functions."

City Commissioner Terry Drinkwine said he would rather expand the fire department by adding volunteers to the full-time force. "We don't need more cots in the fire hall," he said. "We need more people at the scene."

"The fire department needs to get on line here and allow us to augment their numbers with trained volunteers to any level they need," he continued. "That's the only way this town or any town is going to survive."

But the Royal Oak Fire Department may have more reasons to worry. Unlike the Royal Oak Police Department, the city's fire department does not have a no-layoff clause in its contract since the clause expired last June 30.

Ben Upton, president of the Royal Oak Professional Firefighters Association, said the union is currently in contract negotiations and is requesting another no-layoff clause in the new contract. The firefighters are currently operating under the expired June contract, which includes everything except the no-layoff clause until the union negotiates a new contract, Upton said.

"It's dire because they're clearly considering getting rid of us," Upton said of city officials. "It's financially dire. Every year they tell us we're broke.

"On the outside, they say everyone is doing great, and now they tell us we can't do anything. We got to cut, cut, cut."

The fire department is already down five full-time firefighters, compared with last year, from 71 people to 66, according to Royal Oak Fire Chief Richard Strehlke. Strehlke said he already proposed $54,000 of cuts during the preliminary budget process by trimming training and travel, landscaping for the firehouses and magazine subscriptions.

"We chopped off everything we thought wasn't essential," he said.

Strehlke said he wanted to stay neutral while the city makes specific decisions about the fire department. But he also worries that more cuts would decrease the quality of services.

"Whenever we're faced with the possibility of a smaller budget, it may lead to less people and less apparatus on the road," he said. "I'm worried about the quality of our level of service and whether we can maintain that in any way."

The Royal Oak Fire Department made 4,997 runs last year. Out of those, about 1,000 were fire-related, and the rest were associated with ambulance emergency medical services, which the department took over in 1995, Upton said.

The bulk of the Troy Fire Department is composed of 180 volunteers, according to Troy Fire Chief William Nelson. But Nelson stressed that Troy is not like Royal Oak.

"Creating a volunteer fire department is not like baking a cake," he said. "You can't just add water and make it happen. Personally, I don't think that's an option in Royal Oak. "

For instance, Nelson said the Troy Fire Department deals with about 1,400 calls a year because it handles only fire-related calls, far fewer than the nearly 5,000 calls the Royal Oak Fire Department responded to last year. Alliance Mobile Health handles Troy's emergency medical services for about $500,000 a year, Nelson said. He added that Troy's Fire Department has a $3.9 million budget.

Three years ago, Royal Oak residents passed a $9 million bond issue to purchase new equipment, rebuild two of the city's three fire stations and provide improvements to a third.

Ben Clarke, a Royal Oak resident and firefighter, fretted over the possibility of the new facilities sitting idle and services decreasing, should cuts occur.

"You see your neighbors and little kids at school, and you're worried about them," Clarke said. "It affects me because people are going to suffer with increased response times. There' s a lot of auto accidents wherewe need to get there in three or four minutes, or people aren't going to make it."