One week and one day after four Harper Woods firefighters were laid off, a two-man crew responded to a three-alarm house fire that took hours to get under control and drew the help of three Grosse Pointe departments.
public safety officers responded to the fire automatically and the Harper Woods firefighters called a third alarm upon arriving at the home early Monday—eliciting the response of and crews. The house was a total loss and no one was injured while fighting the fire.
The house was not occupied but fully engulfed in flames, Grosse Pointe Woods City Administrator Al Fincham said, so the two Harper Woods firefighters essentially set up outside the house but could not truly start fighting the fire until the Grosse Pointe Woods crew arrived.
The recent layoffs have reduced Harper Woods Fire Department to a seven-man crew but two of those are off of work for injuries, Capt. Mike Head said.
With a working five-man crew, some shifts are covered by one firefighter and the impact of such low staffing levels on the Grosse Pointes could be significant. Already, Harper Woods agreed to pay for Grosse Pointe Woods to call in an additional officer on overtime for one entire shift when their single firefighter had to call off due to a family emergency, Fincham said. He estimated the cost to be about $600 for that one shift worked on overtime by a Woods officer.
The Harper Woods department had been reduced from 18 employees to 11 about two years ago, Head said, and that reduction created changes in EMS response. Harper Woods firefighters are also certified paramedics but with the reduction in manpower, the city outsourced its second ambulance to MedStar after that reduction, Head said.
With the most recent layoffs, ambulance service is not being provided by Harper Woods firefighters/paramedics at all. They can respond to the scene of a medical emergency but with the fire engine rather than the ambulance, which renders the service somewhat useless, Harper Woods Fire Department union representative Dave Micallef said.
The residents of Harper Woods are at risk as are the remaining firefighters, Micallef said, noting Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires a minimum of four firefighters to respond to any fire before the fighting can begin. The law is intended to protect the safety of the firefighters.
While Harper Woods officials have said the layoffs are a financial move to help the distressed city, Micallef questions whether the move is really to try to force the public safety format. Especially considering that the layoff notices employees received about a month before they were implemented originally included police officers and civilian jail guards—both of which were rescinded at the last minute.
. There was considerable history leading up to that vote as the city had already started trying to make such a change and cross-trained several police officers by sending them to the fire academy. Those cross-trained officers are prohibited from fighting a fire in Harper Woods per a Michigan Court of Appeals injunction issued in January 2011.
The scenario of low staffing in Harper Woods Fire Department poses several risks.
Fincham said the cross-trained police officers are able to respond to a fire in Grosse Pointe Woods or any of the Grosse Pointes and fight a fire should they need the help, which maintains Harper Woods' agreement in the mutual aid pact shared by the six communities.
Yet, since the most recent layoffs implemented March 23, Grosse Pointe Woods officials have been put on alert for fire response into Harper Woods. Monday was the first major event that required the Woods to respond automatically rather than wait for a second alarm as would be standard if Harper Woods were fully staffed.
Micallef said he believes city officials are going to rely on the mutual aid backup by the Pointes but officials in the Pointes are aware of the situation.
Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety Director Dan Jensen said officials will need to monitor Harper Woods' ability to fulfill their part o the mutual aid pact. Micallef says this is a concern for the firefighters as well. The city was already excluded from another mutual aid agreement it has with other cities in Macomb County a few years ago because of an inability to respond appropriately staffing-wise, Micallef said. He does not want to see that happen with the Pointes.
On Friday, Micallef submitted a list of concessions the firefighters are willing to agree to in their contract that he says total more than $200,000 in savings for the city. He is awaiting the city's response to the concessions, he said.
Ultimately he is hoping the city will accept the contract with the concessions and put the four firefighters back to work. At a minimum, he's hopeful to get at least the two firefighters with the highest seniority back to work because they both have families to support, he said.
Micallef questions the decisions made by city officials, including the cutting of ambulance service which he said was a revenue generator for the city.
While the situation is certainly not ideal, Fincham said residents should be reassured that they will receive fire protection. He is hopeful the situation will truly be temporary as suggested by Harper Woods officials but said in the meantime, the departments will work together to ensure coverage for residents of both communities.
Another detail Fincham pointed out is one sentence in the appeals court decision that states: "The trial court's ruling does not suggest that the police department is prohibited from acting during a fire emergency." Fincham said if it came down to helping rescue a person in a burning structure, that sentence could allow for the cross-trained officers to act.