Contracts, partnerships help public safety agencies overcome staffing, other challenges
ALPENA — Where an emergency happens and the manpower available to respond often dictates how long it takes for help to arrive and how many people show up to help, a News review of public safety resources in the region found.
With declining numbers of police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel in the region, Northeast Michigan agencies work together to make sure help arrives when someone dials 911. A network of contracts, mutual aid agreements, and partnerships with nontraditional public safety agencies such as the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center’s firefighting squad, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, and the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team help local municipalities fight fires, fight crime, and respond to medical emergencies.
As of this summer, Northeast Michigan agencies employed 72 firefighters, 15.5 police officers, and 31 emergency medical personnel for every 10,000 residents across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties, according to the News review of public safety resources.
At times, the people called to the emergency may or may not be able to respond because they are volunteers who often have day jobs, which means first responders from farther away get sent.
James Leedy, deputy sheriff for the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office, said he has a fire extinguisher and medical bag in his patrol car, but, beyond that, there is little else he can do until assistance arrives.
“So, sometimes, you get a bunch of guys, and, sometimes, you don’t get anybody, because everybody’s out of town or they’ve got jobs, can’t leave work,” he said. “So we make do with what we can, but we are in desperate need of people that are willing to step up and make that investment of their time.”
Alpena County Emergency Services Coordinator Kim Elkie said first responder shortages and travel time from one place to another provide challenges, but police, fire, and emergency medical employees always make protecting the public their number-one priority.
“There will always be someone who is going to come,” she said. “We have a system that is designed to make sure we work together to help each other out.”
As employees get harder to find and older firefighters retire, some fire departments that operate full-time are facing the reality that it might be time to find a new and more cost-effective way to provide fire and medical services to residents.
The prime example of that is in Alpena Township, township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe said.
In 2021, facing an employee shortage, the township considered entering into a long-term contract with the Alpena Fire Department for emergency response. Ultimately, the township Board of Trustees voted against the deal and twice asked voters to instead approve a tax hike to fund the township’s department.
Voters twice said no.
If staffing remains a problem and expenses continue to rise, the department will become even more of a drain on the township’s budget, Skibbe said. If that is the case, Skibbe said, an alternate means of proving service can’t be ruled out, including consolidation.
“Nothing has changed,” Skibbe said. “We’re still not fully staffed and the same problems are the same problems. There is going to have to be more consolidation. It’s the only way to combat and offset expenses. You either increase the millage — and we know how that worked out for us — or we start working together and erase the shortcomings we all have independently.”
As small, volunteer fire departments struggle to maintain staffing and funding, relying on one another is key, officials said.
All municipalities in Northeast Michigan have mutual aid agreements with one another, meaning one department will send aid to another if needed.
Several municipalities across Northeast Michigan don’t have their own fire departments and contract with other municipalities to respond to emergencies. Departments like the Hubbard Lake Fire Department and Hillman Fire Department charge fees to provide services to other municipalities who don’t have their own firefighting force.
Cyndi Apsey, supervisor of Caledonia Township, said Caledonia Township contracts with Curran, Hubbard Lake, and Sanborn Township fire departments. She said she couldn’t find any problems with contracting out the services.
“I think that it’s really beneficial for taxpayers,” Apsey said. “The firemen provide a fantastic service and help our community. It’s all a really good thing.”
But Joshua Mosher, president of the Northern Division of Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs, said contracting out firefighting — and not having firefighters coming from your own back yard — can present challenges.
“The benefit of contracting is always gonna be money,” Mosher said. “Contracting out means that a township, they can cut down on cost if they don’t have the funds or resources to maintain their own department. The issue with this is that you won’t have people there when you need them, and that could be an issue in the future.”
AMBULANCE SERVICES AND MEDICAL RESPONSE
In a medical emergency, medical first responders who are paid per response provide initial but limited care until an ambulance arrives with more highly trained personnel.
Most townships and small cities don’t have the capability or licensure to transport patients to the hospital and depend on contracts with ambulance service providers.
With an aging population that tends to have more health-related emergencies, having swift ambulance response is critical in saving lives, Alpena Fire Chief Rob Edmonds said.
Those ambulances are manned with licensed paramedics and emergency medical teams and most are equipped with advanced life support systems.
In general, when a 911 call comes into central dispatch, the dispatcher prompts a call to the nearest department to the scene, according to Elkie, the Alpena County emergency services coordinator.
Because some departments solely depend on paid-on-call employees, sometimes, many responders head to the scene and, other times, few — if any — respond. If nobody reports they are enroute after a second page, the dispatchers put out another page seeking help from another nearby municipality.
Edmonds said that, often, it is the medical first responders or paid-on-call firefighters who take the initial lifesaving action before more advanced rescue and medical help arrives.
At the Aug. 22 Alpena County Board of Commissioners meeting, Edmonds presented certificates to firefighters and medical first responders from Long Rapids Township Fire and Rescue for their action in saving the life of a motorist who rolled a vehicle onto its driver’s side and became trapped while fire spread into the vehicle.
He said the responders needed to push the car back onto its wheels and force their way into the vehicle to pull the driver to safety before fire consumed the front seat of the vehicle.
Edmonds said that, thanks to that quick action and bravery, the driver’s injuries were limited and the driver was treated on scene by medical first responders until paramedics arrived to take over medical treatment.
“This is just one example of how the system of pre-hospital response care is making a difference in saving lives and minimizing long-term effects of injuries and illness in the county,” Edmonds said. “It also reinforces the need to have our personnel trained, equipped, ready, and available to answer to the community calls for help at any given moment. It is my opinion that, without the quick response of the fire crews and their quick thinking to address the situation, the outcome would not have been favorable.”
Small communities, such as many townships in the area, have neither the money nor call volume to support a full-time police department.
They rely instead on the Michigan State Police, sheriff’s offices, specialized police units like the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team, and DNR conservation officers to fight crime and respond to emergencies.
Only a pair of local municipalities, Alpena and Rogers City, have their own dedicated police departments. Onaway contracts with the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office for a deputy to patrol the city part-time. The bulk of police protection outside of those areas falls on county sheriff’s offices and the State Police, agencies that have to patrol hundreds of square miles.
Alcona County Sheriff Scott Stephenson said limited staff and the many miles of rural areas can make law enforcement a challenge, but he feels the teamwork and communication among police departments helps overcome the many challenges a smaller staff face.
“Right now, we have some solid staffing levels, but we can always use more,” Stephenson said. “We have units patrolling in the middle of the county that stay alert for any issues that need immediate response. Really, you wanna do the best you can and help.”
Chris Flewelling, Presque Isle County undersheriff, said the rate of pay for deputies in rural counties is a factor in fewer people applying for police positions. He said there are also few people attending academies to become police officers. Flewelling said he believes people are avoiding the career because it has been tarnished and some public perception is poor.
“Early in my career, when I was coming out of academy, there would be 100 or more applicants for one open position,” he said. “Now, we have to beg people to apply.”
Presque Isle County Sheriff Jow Brewbaker said he is seeing a shift in the public opinion of the police, especially locally. He said the tide is beginning to turn and support for police is increasing. If that continues to be the trend, he hopes it will motivate people to become police officers.
“You see a lot more of the thin blue line support, and there is a shift happening and people are being more vocal about their support for the police,” Brewbaker said. “That can only help.”