Why I continue to serve as a firefighter

This guest column was only intended for News cartoonist Eric Roorda and News Publisher/Editor Justin Hinkley.

Mr. Hinkley asked if he could print it. Since you are reading it, I want to make three points:

First, I know Dr. Roorda meant no disrespect and did not intend to hurt local firefighters. I know his cartoon was intended to be taken figuratively and not literally. Political cartoons are a great way to get inside the minds of people who hold different opinions.

Second, I am not going to quit working for the Alpena Township Fire Department just yet, or stop subscribing to The Alpena News. Both are important to our community.

Finally, I am not a great firefighter. I rarely make it to calls and I am often late if I do. But I try to help when I can. Telling this story is important, but what is more important right now is knowing that some members of the Alpena Township board have been working closely with the Fire Department to set things right.

And we are making progress.

My older — and often wiser — sister always tells me I need to quit working for the Fire Department. She says, “John, you are a father and a teacher and you shouldn’t be doing that. They don’t care about you. They don’t care if you get hurt.”

When the township board is cutting corners, she reminds me, “It’s always cheaper to pay the widows.”

I fight back. I tell her that I am doing good work. I remind her that she wants someone to respond when she calls 911, and I have the skills and the desire. I like helping people.

Your political cartoon on July 24 makes me feel like a chump.

I’m pretty literal, so what I got out of it was this: “John, you are a petulant child who likes to play with your fire trucks, but you don’t understand how the world really works. Let your dad, The City, handle this.”

If we get more figurative, I think you believe we need to be more efficient with our tax dollars and a merger with the city makes sense. You probably think the township should get its act together and make an adult decision.

I would like to ask you some questions:

If this is such a great idea, why didn’t Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe campaign on the issue? Why did he wait until two days after the election to reveal the proposal to the firefighters? By his own admission, they began discussions with the city’s fire chief in 2017. Why did they wait until November 2020 to include their own fire chief (and the rest of the township Fire Department)?

If partnering with the city is such a great idea, why are we still in litigation with the city over water? Recently, Dr. Ken Gembel asked the township board, “Does it make sense to enter into another agreement with the city while you are currently involved in litigation?”

That fight has gone on for nearly a decade.

If this is a good plan, more efficient, and a smart way to consolidate government services, then why did the city fire chief (and his deputy) get a seat at the table and unlimited time to talk, but the township’s fire chief (and his firefighters and EMS staff) had to go the podium and keep their comments to the same three-minute time limit every other member of the general public receives?

There is a time and place for efficiency. There are also situations that require redundancy. An A-10 Warthog has double-redundant hydraulic flight systems plus a mechanical system as a backup. Three ways to control flight. Not one or two. Why? It matters. Human spaceflight is like that, too.

However, our hospital has a 140-bed capacity, but we staff, efficiently, for 59 inpatients.

Some systems are built for efficiency and others for redundancy.

When you have an emergency, you need redundancy. I think the pandemic illustrated that, when some hospitals were overrun.

My chief issue with the merger is the loss of firefighters that will occur (that’s how you save the money, you cut the staff). In the two response areas, there would be fewer firefighters to respond to fire and EMS calls. And, because of how poorly this was handled, many paid-on-call firefighters will not continue serving in that role.

So we lose even more firefighters.

I’m not interested in being a chump. So, why would I quit when the people need me?

Maybe I am tired. Maybe I have injuries. Maybe I don’t like the way Alpena Fire Chief Bill Forbush and Skibbe operated in secret, preventing the people from voting in an informed way — understanding their plan and their intent — last November.

Maybe I was only continuing to serve because a fire department is a family, and I loved working with my brothers and sisters. Maybe they were going to be hurt by this plan. Not just emotionally, but potentially in, like … a fire?

Maybe I am not going along with it because it will hurt city firefighters, too, and they are like family to me.


I don’t have to put my life on the line for the people of Alpena Township or Alpena. I chose to.

There was a photo, taken by Ted Fines, of a lone firefighter sitting on a two-and-a-half at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore Fire. It was an Alpena Township firefighter. The city called us for help, as they often do, and we responded, as we always will. I’d love to tell you the story of that photo and that firefighter. I want you to understand this at a personal level as well as a political one.

We should talk.

I think a merger will eventually happen. The idea has merit. Unfortunately, the secrecy, the bad intentions, the animosity, and the idiocy have made consolidating much more difficult. We probably shouldn’t add ignorance to the equation. If you want to learn more, please … ask.

Hinkley assures me The Alpena News is covering this story without bias. I disagree. This cartoon makes matters worse. I love political cartoons. I wish Justin would bring them back to The Alpena News. But, this one is a self-inflicted wound The News can’t afford. And it’s based on an incomplete understanding of the issues involved.

When I last spoke to Justin, he assured me The News would report what the firefighters said at the Alpena Township board meeting. The News did not.

One of the things I said at the last board meeting I attended was, “I am tired of fighting with the front office to justify our operations.” We’ve been fighting for years. Soon, I will stop being a petulant child, quit the fire service, and devote my considerable energies to other pursuits. I shouldn’t have to fight to be a firefighter.

One thing your cartoon illustrates pretty well is exactly what my sister has been telling me for years … I am not needed, anyway.

I give your political cartoon two stars.

John Caplis has been a paid-on-call firefighter for nearly 25 years and has almost 20 years of service with the Alpena Township Fire Department.


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