By Charles Sercombe
For some Hamtramck firefighters, it’s do as we say, not as we do.
Hamtramck firefighters have insisted in the past that the only way Hamtramck can be protected is by having a full-time staff in the station.
However, in a review of the 18 communities – including the City of Hamtramck — that the department’s 26 firefighters live in, only seven of the communities have full-time staffs.
In the other communities, the departments are staffed by paid-on-call firefighters, or by a combination of a small full-time staff aided by paid-on-call firefighters.
In the past year city officials have been struggling with how to overcome an ever-increasing budget deficit. One suggestion to lower costs is to restructure the Fire Department.
Currently, the department eats up $5 million of the city’s total budget. There is a projected $3 million deficit expected by June.
With little room to cut in the budget, some city officials have looked at ways to trim at least $3 million from the Fire Department’s budget.
One way would be to resort to copying how other communities handle their fire protection by having a core group of full-timers and a majority of firefighters being on call when needed.
Hamtramck firefighters insist, however, that plan can’t work in the city because of the density of housing. In other words, with Hamtramck’s housing stock being crammed within a few feet of each other, a fire in one house could quickly spread to another.
In the rural and suburban communities that most of the city’s firefighters live in, that’s not the case.
The president of Hamtramck’s firefighters’ union, Matthew Wyszczelski, said it’s all about timing.
“With a full-time staff we can manage a fire in a timely manner,” Wyszczelski said. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”
Wyszczelski also said that a paid-on-call method would require having a lot of people living close by and available at a moment’s notice.
“You don’t have a lot of trained people here,” Wyszczelski said.
But Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag said if the paid-on-call system works in other communities where a majority of Hamtramck firefighters live, it can work here.
“After telling the folks in Hamtramck how vital it is to have a full-time department, when they (Hamtramck firefighters) choose where to live, they don’t have that kind of fire system,” Tertzag said. “By them choosing to live elsewhere, that tells me those systems are not bad at all.”
The future of the Hamtramck Fire Department has become a heated topic in recent weeks. It appears that an emergency manager will be appointed to take over financial control of the city.
Tertzag said it’s his understanding that the state plans a major overhaul of the Fire Department.
Just what that means remains to be seen.
Wyszczelski said he realizes that depending on who is appointed the department could be either wiped out and replaced with the service of another community, or there could be a type of manager who works with the department.
Wyszczelski questioned the managerial decisions being made now concerning the department. He pointed out that the city has refused to hire an additional four firefighters whose salaries would be covered by the federal SAFER grant that was awarded to the department.
The two-year grant is now reimbursing the city for the salaries of eight lowest-paid firefighters. There is room to cover the costs for four more firefighters, but they would have to be new-hires.
Tertzag said that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to hire more firefighters at this point if in three months an emergency manager eliminates the department.
“That’s not fair to the new-hires,” he said.
But at a budget work session with the city council on Tuesday night, Fire Chief Paul Wilk pointed out that hiring four more firefighters would eliminate the need to budget an extra $50,000 in overtime.
Councilmember Tom Jankowski urged Tertzag to consider that move, saying it would be up to the new-hires if they want to take the risk of being unemployed in a few months.
Wilk and Wyszczelski also say the city is missing out on collecting up to $20,000 a month by providing ambulance service. Tertzag canceled the department’s ambulance service recently because the department’s two ambulance vehicles are unreliable and need repairs.
He contracted out the service with DMC, which provides the service free of charge to the city.
Tertzag said the department had been bringing in $10,000 a month from the service, but noted that there are costs to the city to pay firefighters extra to man the ambulances and for the vehicles’ maintenance.
“It isn’t free to run,” Tertzag said.
Plus, Tertzag said, the DMC service offers higher-quality care because their crews have advanced training.
For instance, Tertzag said, one man’s life was saved by a DMC crew because they had the ability to give the man medication right away. The man was having a heart seizure.
Hamtramck’s ambulance crews are not certified to give patients medication.
Even if city officials wanted to restructure the Fire Department at this point, their hands are tied because of the firefighters’ labor contract with the city. Their contract runs out in another year or so.
However, under the state’s emergency manager law, it’s unclear if contracts could be torn up. Because the state’s emergency manager is new and has not been challenged, it’s likely that any drastic action will result in a legal battle.