Firefighters, city debate staffing at Muskegon Fire Department

MUSKEGON, Mich. - City administrators in Muskegon and the Muskegon Professional Firefighters Union disagree on how to best operate the fire department, after the city has had to rely on neighboring towns' mutual aid to fight their fires.

While both sides tell FOX 17 they are dissatisfied with the current situation, the Muskegon Fire Department's annual calls are rising to nearly 5,000 calls including medical per year, but firefighting staff is dwindling.

"Historically, this is the lowest we’ve ever been staffed for this department," said Chris Drake, the president of Muskegon Professional Firefighters Union, local 370. "Our call volume hasn’t significantly dropped to justify fewer firefighters."

The city currently has 26 full-time firefighters, but the city cut $900,000 from their budget in June.  Drake claims the city has the money and urges them to hire enough firefighters to have 12 people working each shift.  Several times in 2017, the city only had six Muskegon firefighters on duty and relied on mutual aid from neighboring towns during one or more city fires.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the national safety standard is 15 firefighters on the scene of a single family house fire, within eight minutes and 90 percent of the time.

City Manager Frank Peterson says they're "not hiring."

"We think we have the adequate safe number of firefighters when you look at our city in comparison to some of our neighbors like Norton Shores," said Peterson to FOX 17 Thursday.

Peterson says the fire department needs to better manage their current staff and limit bulk time off on particular days. He says they will rely on "all call," which is calling in paid on-call, part-time or staff that's off that day, and mutual aid when needed, rather than hire additional firefighters.

"That’s the most efficient way to operate the system," said Peterson. "And that’s what all the other departments around us rely on."

Drake disagrees.  He says for small house fires the department shouldn't have to rely on calling neighboring departments, which have fewer total firefighters than Muskegon.

"For every day fires, like a house fire in a single room or a couple rooms, we shouldn’t have to rely on calling our neighboring departments to subsidize us," said Drake. "And those taxpayers in those neighboring communities should be concerned as well."

Peterson says they are looking at other models of operation as well, including the "public safety model" which blends police officers and firefighters into essentially one position. He added they cut budgets for most departments, except for Muskegon Police, in order to lower benefits cots for long-term or legacy employees.

Yet, Drake stands firm on the 2014 contractual concessions the union made, stating they deserve additional firefighters and can afford them. Those concessions include: lowering starting firefighter wage by about $4,500 to $31,599; extending from four to eight years for firefighters' pay to fully mature; changing benefits from pension to 401K plans with younger hires; and reducing personal days from two to one for firefighters' first 10 years.

"We’ve got a lot of significant investment coming into the city, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to show you can protect it," said Drake.

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