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Fire audit recommends Cedar/Solon work together

 

By Judy Reed

Members of the Cedar Springs City Council, Solon Township board, their respective fire departments, and members of the public, attended a special meeting last Thursday, December 17, to hear the main points an operational evaluation and shared services study that was recently done for their two fire departments.

Mark Nottley, of Municipal Consulting Services, LLC, made the presentation and answered questions.

It is the same consulting service that studied Cedar Springs in 2009 and made recommendations for improvements.

Solon Fire Chief Jeff Drake applied for a grant last year to do a shared services study, and invited area departments to be part of the study. Only Cedar Springs responded.

The study revealed that the Cedar Springs Fire Department has made significant upgrades since the 2009 study, including improvements to training, standard operating procedures, succession planning, and capital budgeting. And they have even more upgrades in process, such as fire prevention planning. Nottley noted that morale is high in the department despite being one of the lowest paid in the area.

Nottley said recommendations for upgrades included developing a master plan, an annual report, and creating a performance evaluation system. Other items were also mentioned, including a cost estimate to be developed for a new facility.

Nottley said Solon has experienced issues and problems in the past, and that Chief Drake has significantly upgraded operations. (Drake is also a command officer in the Plainfield Township. Fire department.) They need to implement some of the same things as Cedar Springs Fire, and staffing should increase to 25. Paid on duty assignments were recommended for the 2-6 p.m. period when it is especially hard to get firefighters. Nottley recommended that grant writing be aggressively pursued, and that they could contract out preplanning and inspections or do them with Cedar Springs.

Nottley said that with both communities growing, and already sharing a number of services, such as County dispatch, Rockford ambulance, MABAS automatic aid, the school system, a library, and CS Area Parks and Rec, it makes sense that the fire services should also work together. It could mean full consolidation or something less, such as Solon contracting Cedar Springs to respond to certain areas in Solon Township that lie just outside the Cedar Springs limits.

Other recommendations for shared services include joint master planning by the two fire chiefs (CS Chief Marty Fraser and Solon Chief Jeff Drake); combining some training; joint reviews by command staff of standard operating procedures; grant writing, etc.

Nottley said as far as full consolidation goes, it would only be feasible with two station houses: the current one in Solon Township on 19 Mile, and a possible new one in the 17 mile area. The one on 19 Mile would be needed to service the north and central area of Solon Township. Otherwise, response times would be too slow.

Benefits would include a service upgrade in Solon Township without reinventing the wheel; in Cedar Springs, the cost of a new facility would be spread between two jurisdictions. They would only need one chief, however, to run the department, and there would be less command officers.

Cedar Springs Fire Chief Marty Fraser said that the report has given them all a lot to think about. “It’s a work in progress. It won’t be done next month—it may take two to three years. It didn’t get broke overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight. It’s given us a lot to chew on.”

Chief Drake was pleased with the recommendations, and didn’t feel there were any surprises. “I think all of the recommendations have merit, all need to be reviewed methodically, and patiently,” he said.

“I firmly believe that we need to update our service delivery model on a regional basis,” he told the Post. “Solon Fire Department’s current delivery model has not changed since the fire department was organized in the early 1900’s, yet the demographics and calls for service are very dynamic. The fire service has a long history of tradition that is often revered as a great trait, but it can also be a detriment. I think Mark Nottley was spot on with his recognition that we are a community sharing many other civic functions, and fire/rescue services seems to be the next logical step, just like the law enforcement change in the city.”

“At a minimum, I think the most obvious takeaway is the ability to improve service to the southeast corridor (east of 131, south of 19 mile) by simply contracting these alarms out to Cedar Springs Fire Department,” added Drake. “I would estimate that the Act 425 agreement has already provided 75 percent of this recommendation. As Mark said, Google maps make it very easy to determine who can provide the quickest response, the customer does not care about the name on the truck. After all, the whole reason behind equipping our fleet with emergency warning equipment is to arrive quicker.”

He did note that if they went this route, it could be a significantly hard pill to swallow for the members of Solon Fire. “The tradition of the fire service trends to breed a very territorial mentality. Nobody joins the fire department to run less alarms, and this will be the result for Solon Fire members with this recommendation.”

Drake added that the the policy makers with fiduciary responsibility would have an integral part in this process.

“I believe every member of both departments desires to deliver great customer care and satisfaction. We need to make sure that our ego, pride, tradition, and history, do not inhibit any progress to improving the efficiency of the product our customer’s deserve and expect,” said Drake.

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