BAY CITY, MI – Bay City enters a new era on Monday, July 1, when the city’s plan to merge its police and firefighting forces takes effect.
Cross-trained police officers will take on some firefighter duties, and Public Safety Director Michael Cecchini said he’s confident the department is prepared for the change in operations.
“We’ll be ready to meet the needs of the community. I’m confident that there are not going to be any issues,” Cecchini said.
The combined police-firefighting force was approved by city leaders in an effort to save $1.8 million in operating costs by 2017.
To that end, the merger impacts the jobs of 10 Bay City firefighters, who are being laid off effective Sunday, June 30.
Chris Reynolds is president of the union representing Bay City firefighters. He feels there are still questions about how the public safety department will operate.
“Time will tell,” said Reynolds, who admits he’s skeptical about police officers being ready to fight fires. “I hope they are.”
The city initially issued pink slips to 15 firefighters, but Reynolds said his pink slip and four others were rescinded because some firefighters retired. Those retiring include Deputy Fire Chief Gary Gasta and Fire Marshal Thomas Wieszczecinski.
The city has sent two groups of police officers through a fire training academy involving drills and simulated scenarios, confirmed John Kramer, the Monitor Township fire chief running the academy.
The first dozen already went through training; the second group of 21 will graduate in November. Bay City is paying $500 per police officer for the firefighting cross-training, according to Kramer.
“They’re real aggressive with it,” Kramer said of the city. Regarding the cross-training police officers, “their academics were excellent. They had the proficiency to make it. (However), like any other firefighter, you learn on the job.”
Whether the merger is successful, “you don’t know until it’s been put into place a few years,” Kramer continued.
Bay City’s merged public safety department is bound to have approximately 80 employees. According to Public Safety Lt. Mark Turner, there will be 38 trained police officers, including the director and his deputy; 28 firefighters, including some top officials; and 11 cross-trained public safety officers.
Law enforcement officials say at least 50 municipalities across the state already have merged police and fire emergency response teams into public safety departments, including Essexville and East Grand Rapids.
Cecchini said his 2006 interview to become Bay City’s police chief warned him that such a merger could happen locally. He made sure to mention, he said, that he was accustomed to such blending of services. The trend was happening in Arizona, where he was then working.
He also served temporarily as Bay City’s fire chief in 2008 because of former Fire Chief Douglas Doefer’s retirement.
The public safety director insists the city’s safety will not suffer with police officers responding to fires. The county has a mutual aid agreement, and he aims for the city to hire more than the six paid, on-call firefighters the public safety department currently staffs.
“We’re not an island,” Cecchini said. “We help other communities and they help us. It’s a change, but I don’t think you’re going to see any difference in services.”
With approximately 30 cross-trained public safety officers on the city’s payroll by the end of the year, he hopes the city will reopen Fire Station No. 5 on Smith Street by January 2014.
When the city has fully adapted to the merger, a period Cecchini figures will take a good decade, the chief hopes to have public safety officers at each of the fire stations, manning the equipment. A person could drop by and file a police report.
Bay City administrators learned in April that Gov. Rick Snyder’s Competitive Grant Assistance Program was denying the city a $456,248 grant for the merger.
An explanation letter indicated Bay City’s financial loss was because the firefighters union opposed the merger. Reynolds, as union president, said the program was aimed to reward municipal efficiencies and that the merger’s worth remained unproven.
But Mayor Christopher Shannon defends the city’s decision.
“From an overall perspective, it’s going to put us on a good long-term financial footing,” Shannon said. “We’re going to have to keep improving. ”
Along with Cecchini, he stresses that nine out of every 10 fire dispatch calls don’t involve structure fires.
The merger “utilizes our work force more efficiently,” the mayor said.
Commissioners Lori Dufresne, 4th Ward; Jim Irving, 5th Ward; and Larry Elliott, 9th Ward, opposed the merger when the commission approved it in a 6-3 vote.
“I feel it’s being kind of rushed through,” Dufresne said. “When it was originally presented to us, it was presented to us as a 3- to 4-year plan and it’s being pushed through in much less than that.”
City officials moved firefighters out of fire station No. 5 a few years ago because of layoffs and concerns for the best use of manpower. One Bay City resident questions that decision.
“I thought it was kind of stupid,” said Joe King, who has lived in the area of station No. 5 for about five decades. Until the fire station is responding to fires again, he’s concerned that public safety officers will not respond to flames quick enough.
“I don’t know if you noticed the bridges around here,” he said, speaking of Bay City’s four drawbridges that stop traffic when a vessel has to pass through. “If they raise them up, they can’t them get back down.”
“It’s going to be interesting,” King said.