The creation of the South Shore Fire Department seems to be causing more problems than it solves right now.
- Overtime costs are over budget, with 2012 costs coming in more than $400,000 greater than what was budgeted for the department.
- Equipment is old and breaking down, and officials can't agree on how to address that.
- Response time is too long in large parts of Mount Pleasant, and residents in the northeast section of the village sometimes wait eight to 10 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant relied on a 2008 study from McGrath Consulting that outlined cost savings and better service to residents if the departments consolidated. But, four years out from the creation of the joint department, the problems seem to overshadow the benefits.
One Mount Pleasant trustee has even said things have gotten so bad that it might be best to dissolve the SSFD.
If the study said things would have been better, why hasn't that happened?
Part of the problem appears to be that officials haven’t followed specific recommendations outlined in the McGrath study. They did go along with the funding structure in which Sturtevant pays a flat fee to Mount Pleasant through the end of this year and 18 percent for capital purchases. But on matters like station location and staffing — which have a direct impact on overtime and response time — officials from the two villages went a different direction.
Tim McGrath, the author of the study, told Patch the purpose of the consolidation is to ensure that taxpayers aren't paying twice for everything.
"These two communities have a great opportunity to work together and be better together than separately," he said. "Obviously, they can choose to go in another direction, but do taxpayers want to pay for duplicate services?"
Here is a look at some of the specific recommendations in McGrath's study and what actually was implemented when Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant established the department.
Overtime and staffing
The study recommended: 54 sworn personnel plus a chief, an assistant chief and three command staff. The consolidation contract signed by both villages spells out that Sturtevant’s station was to have two crews of three at all times. The study recommended hiring three new firefighters in 2009, to bring the total to 54, but only one was actually brought on board.
What the villages did: Sturtevant in 2009 agreed to a temporary reduction in fire department staffing because of tight budgets in Mount Pleasant. that it would withhold part of their 2012 payment if staffing at Station 9 wasn’t at the contractual level.
Where things stand: Station 9 has been fully staffed with two crews of three since February 2012, but the department was forced to use overtime to fill those slots because some firefighters were out with injuries and there were vacancies in the department. Since then, two fire fighters were hired to fill vacancies left by retiring fire fighters, and another two will be hired to help fill the staffing at Station 9. The additional staff will bring the sworn strength of SSFD to 54, without the command staff and clerical support.
What’s next: The 2013 budget includes about $268,000 for overtime because the new hires cut back on the need for overtime. The villages budgeted for $286,000 in overtime, but actual costs were significantly higher, reaching $700,861 for all of 2012, according to figures provided by Interim Fire Chief Mark Pierce.
"Had we hired as outlined in the study, overtime would not be as much of an issue," said former SSFD Chief William Bouma.
The study recommended: Bringing the departments together meant the villages didn’t have to purchase anything new, but it also outlined a recommended replacement schedule that includes using ambulances for eight years and then putting them on reserve for two years.
What the villages did: Equipment from both original departments was absorbed into the new consolidated department and re-branded with the new South Shore Fire Department logo.
Where things stand: The department has six ambulances, three of which are well past the 10-year mark: One is from 1998 and two from 2001. Three units from 2005 are just reaching the eight-year point, but they need to be replaced soon because they haven't been all that reliable from the beginning. Ambulance breakdowns are causing problems for rescue crews heading out to calls and transporting patients.
What’s next: The department plans to send out requests for proposals for a single new ambulance and two remounted boxes. A remount means taking the box – the big back of the ambulance where patients are loaded – and putting it on a brand new chassis with new wiring and new mechanicals.
"With our history we are getting into a compression factor in CIP," Pierce told trustees last month. "But we are getting to the point where all six ambulances are at or approaching replacement and our maintenance costs are indicative of that."
According to a five-year capital purchase schedule, the villages are looking at having to buy four new ambulances, one each in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and 2017. The villages will need to spend another $1 million in 2015 for:
- a new power load system;
- incident command car;
- a water tender; and
- a fire engine.
Planned purchases in 2016 for $1.5 million include a new ladder truck to replace the 1992 model that originally came from Mount Pleasant. In addition to a new ambulance, 2017 purcahses include another power load system and defibrillators — for a total of $272,000.
The study recommended: The study was focused primarily on what to do with existing stations, including the elimination of SSFD headquarters at the old Mount Pleasant village hall campus on Highways 11 and 31, for optimal four-minute response times throughout the covered area. The study states a new station should have been built near the intersection of Taylor Avenue and Meachem Road to reach most of the area previously covered by the primary station at the old village hall and Station 7 in Lake Park.
At the same time, the study recommended closing the Lake Park station and staffing Sturtevant with two full crews of three people.
But, according to South Shore Lt. Larry DeRosier, the International Association of Fire Fighters commissioned a study in 2004 that identified the need for a station near the intersection of Neumann Road and Spring Street to serve the northeast corner of the department's coverage area.
Mount Pleasant Trustee Karen Albeck has a copy of this study and has said it recommended another station at Highways V and 20, too, when the growth in Mount Pleasant would make it necessary.
What the villages did: A new station – Station 8 – was built at Highway 31 and Biscayne Avenue, well west of where the study pointed, and Station 7 in Lake Park remains open and staffed.
Where things stand: The total number of stations with crews stands at four – Station 10 is a joint station with Caledonia — instead of three as outlined in the 2008 study. The response time to reach residents in the highly populated northeast corner of Mount Pleasant remains high, well outside the optimal four- to six-minute response time. DeRosier estimates that if Station 10 responds, it could take seven minutes while if Station 8 responds, it could take between eight and 10 minutes, depending on traffic.
What’s next: There are no plans to shutter any stations, redeploy crews or start looking for land at Neumann and Spring to build a new station. The response time discussion at a Nov. 1 meeting was just a starting point, and this item has not been addressed since at the committee level or by the boards in either Mount Pleasant or Sturtevant.