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Fire power: A look at our local fire departments

By Lisa Brody

Firefighters have an air of mystery about them. How many of us are willing to throw on heavy equipment and forge ahead into a burning building as everyone else runs out, struggling to breathe and in fear for their lives? They're the embodiment of heroes, along with police. They were our national idols on 9/11, where of the 415 emergency workers who climbed up the burning towers of the World Trade Center, 343 firefighters were lost rescuing others.

Danger surrounds the work of firefighters, whether in fighting a fire, coming to the aid of car accidents and other emergency rescues, helping with medical emergencies, as well as other forms of community assistance, where in 2019, 62 firefighters died while on duty across the country. Of that, 33 died from heart attacks, 18 from activities at a fire, and 12 from activities at a non-fire scene, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, a drop from 84 fatalities in 2018. Other than in 2001, because of 9/11, the highest toll of fatalities occurred in 2013 nationally, when there were 109 firefighter fatalities.

As a country, we're fascinated by firefighters. Visit a Halloween store, and there is always a run on children's fireman costumes. Who doesn't want to be a hero? Witness the high television ratings for long running shows like “Chicago Fire,” “Station 19,” “911” and “911 Lone Star.”

However, when local fire chiefs are asked how realistic these television shows are, they could only laugh. Perhaps there aren’t as many catastrophic events as there on TV, or as much romantic entanglements that keep eyeballs glued week after week, but they all assure that their officers’ commitment is as strong as portrayed on the shows. And fire hall grub ? It’s definitely a thing – a very delicious, nutritious and increasingly healthy thing.

Regular, demanding training and certification are high expectations for firefighters and paramedics in Bloomfield Township, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, which is a public safety department. A public safety department, of which there are only a few around the state anymore, is a hybrid combination of both police and fire, and every officer must be dually-certified in both. They also split shifts in both fire and police, whereas in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, each fire officer is certified as both a fireman and a paramedic. All three departments note that what was once hundreds of candidates seeking positions from each graduating class at the academy, today it is a competitive hiring process, with fewer qualified candidates to choose from. The local departments each have highest qualifications and requirements.

Bloomfield Township Fire Department

The spotlight was laser-focused on the Bloomfield Township Fire Department and Fire Chief John LeRoy on Thursday, February 17, when the iconic Oakland Hills Country Club went up in flames. LeRoy was tasked with managing not only his fire department, but 18 other departments as well, which he said he did with a careful plan, relying on training.

“There were over 100 firefighters at one point,” he said.

With the first flame called in shortly after 9 a.m., and the hot spots not tampered down until late Sunday or into Monday, it was truly a community-wide, mutual aid, “all hands on deck” effort. “I may be chief, but I let the battalion chiefs run the fire,” he said, noting he checked in with each local department’s battalion chief who was accountable for their own firefighters’ safety. “I’ll plug in wherever I’m needed. They’re coordinating and I’m checking in to see what their needs are. Your job is to make sure they’re safe.”

LeRoy is a second-generation firefighter, who has been “going to fires since I was in middle school. I was hooked,” the son of the former fire chief in Oxford. He noted a lot of firefighters are second, third or fourth generation firefighters, not because of nepotism, “but they’ve been exposed to it at a young age. It’s cool, it’s exciting.

“What is it that compels people to run into burning buildings? They’re different,” LeRoy acknowledged. “A lot of it is an overwhelming sense of wanting to help people, and they gravitate towards this way.”

LeRoy, who has been with Bloomfield Township Fire Department for 20 years, after attending Lake Superior State University for fire science, a four-year firefighting-based degree which also gave him a background in fire investigation, operations, administration and “the broad scope of the entire fire service.” He was first a paid-on-call firefighter for Oxford before being hired for his first full time job in Bloomfield Township, where he rose through the ranks until he became assistant chief in 2017 or 2018, and chief 18 months ago. He said someone usually remains in a chief position for about five or six years before retiring.

Bloomfield Township has a main fire station and three out stations, with a total of 60 full-time personnel. The fire department budget is about $16.5 million annually, funded by four Bloomfield Township public safety millages as well as the township’s general fund. LeRoy noted they are still down employees through attrition, and he works with township finance director Jason Theis to address capital need requirements versus personnel expenses as well as retirement benefits.

“Every fire truck is custom manufactured,” he said, noting they are at the whim of the global supply chain like everyone else, unable to replace an outdated ambulance. “In November we were told it would be 520 days, so we’re trying to buy for the fiscal year 2024 budget, and trying to do that for all of our trucks.”

Each of the four stations has an engine rescue truck as well as a rescue truck, which has all of the equipment of an ambulance, providing the flexibility for all kinds of medical calls if there is a wait for an ambulance. Bloomfield Township provides all of its own ambulance service, with no outsourcing. The main station at 1155 Exeter Road also has an engine/ladder truck as well as a rescue truck, for low frequency, high risk rescues in situations where someone may be trapped in a confined space, a trench, or a building collapse. LeRoy said the trucks are used regularly as part of their mutual aid arrangement, along with hazmat equipment.

The other stations are located at 1063 Westview; 4151 W. Maple Road; and 2389 Franklin Road.

Bloomfield Township firefighters work 24-hour shifts 10 to 11 days a month, with a lieutenant and three firefighter/paramedics at each out stations as well as the main station.

“There’s no set national standards for staffing recommendations. When I started, there were 21 on a shift; now we’re at 18,” LeRoy said. “We lost nine positions over the last 20 years, all through attrition, but we just haven’t replaced them because of our budget. The level of service is the same, but we don’t have enough people for a house fire.”

At that point, the department relies on OAKWAY, a group of 10 Oakland County departments that provide mutual aid for fire, EMS, hazmat, tech rescue, peer support and other services. They include Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Southfield, Waterford, Madison Heights, Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, Ferndale and Royal Oak.

Bloomfield Township Fire Department requires every firefighter to have basic emergency medical training (EMT) and state of Michigan firefighter certification, which is 15 credits at Oakland Community College, and within the first three years they are on the job, to receive basic paramedic certification, which is another 30 credits, as well as 15 credits on anything of their choosing, which equals an associate’s degree.

“They used to be taught on the job, but now there is heavy training and certification that is required,” LeRoy said. “They have to be trained in the combination just to start, followed by a complete physical and multiple oral interviews.”

In most departments, firefighters are on probation for the first year, and it is not unheard of for a “probie” to wash out, especially in a demanding local department, where “the best of the best” is not just a saying.

To maintain their position as a firefighter, every firefighter has to maintain their paramedic license every three years with the state of Michigan, as well as updated state of Michigan firefighting rules, which include 12 hours of annual training. LeRoy said they provide all of the training in-house.

“We are between 10,000 and 12,000 hours of training a year. Every day is a training day here, whether organized or not,” he said. “If something isn’t scheduled, they’re expected to improve,” he said. “Every day they’re doing training, deep maintenance.”

The starting pay for a firefighter/paramedic in Bloomfield Township is $46,000 a year, with stepped increases over the years to $79,000 on the fifth year.

What has changed over the years is the increasing amount of medical and service calls rather than fire calls, largely due to the importance of fire safety. Increasingly, in suburban bedroom communities, calls to 911 and the fire department are trending up for medical and service rather than fires.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they had a big problem with fires, and the federal government focused on the prevention aspect. They called it ‘America’s Burning.’ It taught American kids to not play with lighters, forest fires, and other things, and it’s really grown from there,” LeRoy said.

In December 2021, there were 88 fire-related calls, which included home or business fires, car fires, and fire alarm calls, LeRoy said. In contrast, there were 330 EMS calls, where patients were transported to the hospital, and 130 calls for service. LeRoy said those were for everything from wires down, traffic assistance, helping an elderly person who may have fallen and assisting them back to bed, smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detector chirping, or numerous other ways of aiding residents.

“Often we’re helping residents age at home,” he said.

The average response time from dispatch until they get on scene is five to six minutes, he said, while national recommendation is to be under eight minutes.

In addition, the Fire and Life Safety Division (FLSD), administered by the fire marshal and two inspectors, does annual inspections of all commercial buildings in Bloomfield Township to make sure they remain up to code, to work around issuing tickets, if possible, and reinspect buildings if they do receive code violations.

In addition, the FLSD has a second grade safety program for all second graders in Bloomfield Hills Schools, where they go into the classroom once a week over a period of time over four to six weeks and provide fire safety and general safety information.

Their busiest times of the day, LeRoy said, begin at 7 a.m., “peak at noon, then there’s another peak at 4 p.m. until dinner time, then it trends down over the course of the evening. Weekends are a little lighter, 10-15 percent lighter, because of the kind of community we are.”

Then, while not relaxing, they do eat together as a group.

“Some of the best cooks you can imagine are in the firehouse,” LeRoy confirmed. During the week, they eat together for lunch and dinner; weekends, breakfast and dinner. Some firefighters are assigned to shop, storing the cart if they get a call, and others to cook, rotating it, with healthier fare and workouts at the in-station workout rooms as higher priorities than in the old days.

“They don’t make the huge grand meals anymore,” he said. “In reality, there’s only 15-18 people on call at a time, which is only three to five people at an out station.

“The biggest misconception is that they eat and sit around and watch TV all day,” LeRoy noted. “They don’t sit down til dinner.”

Birmingham Fire Department

As in Bloomfield Township, all 36 personnel in the Birmingham Fire Department are full-time employees – there are 33 firefighters on shift, a fire marshal, assistant fire chief, and fire chief. With two fire stations, the main station on Adams; the other on W. Maple at Chesterfield, they have a requirement to have a minimum of 10 personnel per day, said assistant fire chief Matt Bartalino, which they’ve been running for 24-hour shifts since 2019.

Their days run 8 a.m.-8 a.m., with three-day cycles. Why is that? “A lot of times it was what was in place before,” he said. “You grow up into it so it becomes a preference.”

Birmingham firefighters are also required, trained and certified as paramedics, and have been putting basic EMTs through paramedic school, an eight-10 month school. “It provides a lot more schooling, a lot more skills, in things like cardiology training, EMT, practice and performing more clinical practice,” Bartalino said. This year, with no experience, a beginner firefighter will start at $50,000 without benefits, and they will give a two-year stepped paramedic premium of eight percent.

Since 1979, there has been a continual evolution in pre-hospital emergency medicine that has taken place, which the department is determined to keep up with. They note on their website, “We have invested in training and equipment for a 12-lead ECG program. This new program allows paramedics out in the field to identify a patient who is having chest pain and determine whether the patient is having an active myocardial infarction (MI), (heart attack) and, if so, notify the receiving hospital of this information along with a 12 lead ECG. This will set into motion a Cardiac Alert notification at the hospital where they will assemble a cardiac team to be waiting for the patient arrival. The patient will then bypass the emergency room and go directly to the Cardiac Catheterization Department for definitive care. This new program has been heavily supported by William Beaumont Hospital. We have also added to our already well stocked arsenal of medical emergency equipment to include three automated external defibrillators (AED’s). These AED’s have been well supported by the American Heart Association for the purpose of early defibrillation in cardiac arrest. This equipment will allow non-paramedic firefighters to administer this life saving treatment to patients in cardiac arrest prior to the arrival of a paramedic.”

Average response time for the department is three minutes.

“It’s very difficult right now to hire public safety. The candidate pool is much smaller,” he said. “It used to be when testing you were going up against hundreds, if not thousands, of people. A lot of it is there seems not be as much of an appeal, because the pay is good.”

Birmingham Fire Department has an annual budget of just over $7.1 million for fiscal year 2021-2022, which ends June 30, 2022.

Birmingham Fire Department requires ongoing training, and the state requires continual certification, of 240 hours of training per employee, per year. “We do more, and we do the majority of it in-house,” Bartalino said. “Through OAKWAY, there are a lot of opportunities to train together. The group as a whole will do RIT – rapid intervention training. There is elevation training and other training. We try to get as much of our personnel to train together as possible.”

OAKWAY, a group of 10 Oakland County departments that provide mutual aid for fire, EMS, hazmat, tech rescue, peer support and other services, is an important piece of the training and budget puzzle for Birmingham. The communities include Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Southfield, Waterford, Madison Heights, Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, Ferndale and Royal Oak.

“Birmingham is pretty centralized – our equipment is all lined and ready to go. Everyone is trained on all the equipment,” Bartalino said.