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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.

Birmingham, like Bloomfield Township, does not outsource its ambulance service, providing it themselves for residents and others in need. They have two rescue trucks, or ambulances, one each day at each of their stations, and two engine trucks. A squad at Engine 1 at the Adams Road station is a pumper truck, which is a smaller version of the engine truck, “to mitigate the wear and tear of the engine truck. Our ladder truck is in service everyday with two personnel per truck. There is a back up engine truck at station 2 (Chesterfield), and one back up rescue truck at station 1 (Adams) in case of repairs,” Bartalino explained.

In addition, the newly-rebuilt and expanded Chesterfield station houses equipment for OAKWAYS, including a hazmat truck. The Adams station has an OAKWAY foam trailer, which he said has been used on big tanker fires on the freeway, or on leaks.

“With the amount of rail, freeways and Woodward going through the communities, we’re trained,” he said. “Everyone on the hazmat team in OAKWAY is trained, but because it’s housed here, we’ve mandated everyone here be trained on it. If there’s a worst-case scenario, they’re ready to go.”

As in Bloomfield Township, the call volume is up every year. In 2021, EMS comprised 65 percent of all calls. They had only 43 total fire incidents; the rest were “almost anything you can imagine,” Bartalino said, from false alarms, power outages, concerns about appliances, odor investigations, hazards in roads, trees that came down, random pets or strays, and other “good intent and/or public service” calls.

In addition to fire, EMS and service calls, the fire marshal, Jack Pesha, is in charge of enforcing all of the fire codes throughout the city, and provides annual inspections of commercial properties in Birmingham. He or trained shift inspectors inspect pre-plans in tandem with the city’s engineering and building department for commercial and multi-family building projects.

“Public education is a big part of what we do. We’ve done a lot of speaking engagements at NEXT (Birmingham Senior Services),” Bartalino said.

During the COVID pandemic, Bartalino and chief Paul Wells earned emergency management certification from Michigan State Police, designed for dealing with large incidents.

“They were a huge help in applying directly with state grants,” he said, as well as teaching the best practices, ins and outs of software and documentation. “Having that relationship made handling the pandemic a little easier.”

He said they offer public education at the schools if scheduling can be arranged between the department and individual classroom teachers. “We coordinate as best we can. We get crews out there, especially in October, which is fire safety month, because it’s important to do.”

The fire department holds an annual department open house, which is a fun and popular family day “where we can show kids how to protect themselves,” he said. They also provide home carbon monoxide and smoke detector checks, home safety checks, assist homeowners on how to reduce home risks, offer annual fire inspections, and help with other fire and safety issues.

Community Risk Reduction (CRR), a part of FEMA and U.S. Fire Administration, is an important part of the department’s training and outreach, and an area that Insurance Services Organization (ISO), an independent, for-profit organization scores fire departments every four to five years on how they are doing against its organization’s standards to determine property insurance costs. Bartalino said ISO looks at four different categories: emergency communications; the fire department in general; water supply of the community; and public education, which can be both community education and/or community service.

ISO is ranked on a one-to-10 ranking, with one the highest.

“Right now Birmingham is a three – the goal is to be a one, the best classification,” Bartalino said.

The biggest problem Birmingham has encountered? An old water supply. As improvements have been made to remediate old water lines and improve old streets, “we’ve made a lot of improvements with the water supply,” he said. “We’re going to have ISO come out early, and we hope to improve to a two or better.

“We do really well with our emergency communications and we have a good dispatch,” Bartalino noted. “There have been good improvements with mutual aid, like with Bloomfield Township. We’re not far off from getting a two. The thing we’re hoping for should have been accomplished with the city improvements with the water supply.

“The only one department in the state with a one is Grand Rapids.”

Bartalino, who has been assistant fire chief since 2019, noted that he and fire chief Paul Wells are the same age – “He started ahead of me, in 1998. I started in 2003. One battalion chief started a few years after. We all understand each other, make similar decisions, and we get along very well. It’s all very productive. Former chief John Donohue was a big mentor for a lot of us. It started before a lot of us considered thinking about going up the ranks, to increase our education, finish our degrees. He was a big motivator. I enjoyed the education, whether I got the spots wasn’t the goal. It was helpful.”

Bartalino, who spoke to Downtown Newsmagazine as Wells was out of town, said that like a lot of young people, when he began college, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Then he took a CPR/EMS class.

“Between the instructor and what I was learning, I was instantly hooked,” he said. “I didn’t immediately think of fire, but I already liked this. I said I’d give firefighting a chance. It sounded great – and I loved it. I was hooked.

“This is the first and only place I’ve worked. It was very difficult to get a position. I wanted to do this since 2003 – I’ve been here for 19 years.”

Like LeRoy in Bloomfield Township, he said the myth about firehouse meals is true. “We have a lot of surprisingly good cooks here – but no one shares their recipes. It’s that competitiveness,” he laughed.

While cooks spend just 20 to 25 minutes to prep a meal – after all, time is precious at a fire station – “The meals are huge here, just the time to spend together, to eat together.

“Our crews built their own kitchen table back in the ‘90s. Then they’ve built a bigger one. That’s the pride and importance they put on the meals and the station,” Bartalino noted. “It’s one of those places firefighters will say, if you want to solve all the worlds problems, come to a firefighters’ kitchen. Sitting and talking after a meal. Dinner time is probably the best time of their day, all shift. It builds bonds that lasts a lifetime. We make sure everyone checks on everyone. It’s a mental health check-in.”

An update from the “old days” are transformed spaces into training rooms. “We’ve adjusted our work days so they could start their day with a work out,” Bartalino said. “Some stay late after shift to work out, or get one in before dinner.”

Bloomfield Hills Public Safety

Bloomfield Hills differs from Birmingham and Bloomfield Township because it is a public safety department – which means its department is a combination of both police and fire.

“People are familiar with police and fire, but not so much with public safety,” noted Bloomfield Hills Chief Noel Clason, who said it is a trend in the midwest. “There are just a handful of us in Michigan – besides Bloomfield Hills, there is Oak Park, Huntington Woods, the Grosse Pointes, Centerline, Grand Rapids.”

According to Michigan Townships Association, “Public safety in some communities means that personnel are cross-trained to perform law enforcement, fire suppression and emergency medical services and that a unified department coordinates all three services. However, public safety more often means the delivery of services related to these functions with specialized departments. Communities that provide both fire suppression and emergency medical services most often combine these functions, and a few entities have combined law enforcement and emergency medical services.”

Clason said a public safety department that provides combined police and fire is a cost savings to their community, “because you get officers cross-trained and certified in police, fire and medical first responders in the state of Michigan. Our officers have been to all the academies.

“We’re medical first responders – not EMTs, so we can’t start IVs, can’t administer medications and can’t transport patients. But we can give first aid and CPR. We can splint and resuscitate and assist with licensed EMTs,” Clason said.

Bloomfield Hills contracts out their medical services to Star Ambulance, but assures it does not cost the community because it is strictly off individuals’ medical insurance.

“We have an ambulance designated for the Bloomfield Hills area, and we also supply multiple ambulances for any mass casualty event,” he said.

Bloomfield Hills is not part of OAKWAY, because public safety is different, and operate off of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), which is the fire department portion of public safety departments, as well as Troy Fire Department, an on-call fire department, which work together. Clason said Bloomfield Hills trains with Troy, especially on large scale mass casualty events on the Cranbrook Education Community grounds. “Some of the challenges are communications and coordinating between departments,” he said.

“We also have an agreement with Bloomfield Township, if we have a large structure fire or a large incident, we can call them and they have been more than willing to help us. It allows us to fight the fire with all the tools, as the township has all the tools.”

While Bloomfield Hills is primarily residential with minimal commercial, Clason notes that “when we fight some of our residential fires – fighting those large residential homes are like fighting a commercial fire.

“The safety of the resident is number one, but keeping the safety of the firefighter is also very important,” he emphasized. “Everything else is just property. Then it comes down to just stuff.”

Bloomfield Hills has 24 sworn full-time officers, 16 of which are public safety officers, seven command officers, and the chief, “and I’m still sworn for police and fire,” Clason said. He said he has 20-some years of working for Bloomfield Hills Public Safety, “working from the bottom to the top, and I’ll be retiring this year,” after becoming chief in 2017. “Bloomfield Hills has been wonderful to me and my family.”

Clason’s career began as a military police officer in the U.S. Navy in Japan on a naval carrier, before receiving an honorable discharge in 1995. “And then I immediately went to the police academy.”

He first worked part time at both the Lapeer and Clarkston police departments before being hired by the Centerline Public Safety Department, where they sent him to the fire academy and he learned to fight fires. But at his heart, “I’m a cop,” he laughed. He was hired by Bloomfield Hills public safety in 1998, and climbed the ranks, including responding to Ground Zero following the attacks on 9/11.

He said Bloomfield Hills’ hiring process is very demanding – and difficult, where candidates have to be both a police and fire officer. “I had two last year in our probationary period who didn’t make it,” he said, noting that is why probation is a good thing. “We have extremely talented, excellent trained officers.”

Clason said officers must attend both the police and fire academies, receive medical first responder training and pass all of the state tests, which amounts to more than half a year or more of education. They then must maintain a certain amount of annual credits for their medical first responder license, as well as recertify annually in everything from CPR and first aid, training on rifles, handguns, Tasers, hand-to-hand fighting, dispatch and every other aspect of both departments.

“We do a lot of training in house, although we do contract some out, such as we have someone from Brandon Township come in for our medical training annually,” Clason said.

“Everyone here has to operate every piece of equipment – and be good at it. If I need you to operate the pump or drive the truck, you have to be certified,” he said. “Everyday you train on equipment. What’s unique about our guys is you have know how to operate, and be certified, on every piece of equipment. It’s a lot of work.”

Officers work 24-hour shifts, nine days a month, where there are typically five to six guys on a shift working eight hours police, eight hours of fire, and eight hours of fire standby during the midnight hours. “We cannot have less than two men on a structure fire, and we always have two at the station,” Clason said.

The current contract calls for starting pay for a public safety officer at $51,000 plus benefits, with top pay at $74,266 plus benefits.

There is one main station in Bloomfield Hills. “Our response time is under one minute,” he said, before a public safety officer can get to any home or business in the city, “and it’s within a few minutes of a fire, where you can lose control of it.”

The public safety budget is around $5 million.

Clason said police carry their fire gear in the back of their squad car, so if they get a call they can quickly change clothes and they’re ready to jump into action. All squad cars have fire extinguishers. They have a 75-foot aerial truck, able to reach the highest point at any commercial building in the city; a pumper truck carrying 1,000 gallons of water which also carries all key pieces of equipment; and a first responder/mini pumper truck with all medical equipment.

Clason said they also have rescue, jaws of life and a unique fire pumper that pumps out concentrated foam to extinguish a fire, such as a car fire, with a foam blanket.

“We’ve had some incredible car fires over the years on Woodward,” he said.

EMS runs account for about 80 percent of runs in Bloomfield Hills, with the rest of calls car accidents, smoke investigations, fire alarms, with structure fires and car fires accounting for about five percent of calls.

As in the other departments, Clason said, “these guy eat pretty well, and the younger guys eat healthier.” Quieter days, they eat lunch and dinner together.

Clason, who is winding down his career, is a big fan of all the area departments. “I’m just fortunate to be the chief in the best city in the country.”


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