Rockford models new money-saving safety structure

All full-time DPW, police now qualified firefighters, medical responders

by BETH ALTENA

Jamie Davies (front left) trains firefighters on the control panel of a Rockford fire truck. He will be the lieutenant leading the Department of Public Services firefighters.

The writing was on the wall when Rockford was forced to lay off one of the city’s full-time firefighters two years ago. When police Lieutenant Scott Mazur retired a year ago, his position was not filled. With revenues to the city in a continual decline in recent years due to reduced state revenue sharing, declining property values and a flat new construction economy, and other financial concerns, unusual measures were called for.

“This is a significant change—a different service model to provide more efficient services and savings,” said former Rockford Chief of Police Dave Jones, who now has a new enhanced role and title as Chief of the Department of Public Safety, overseeing both law enforcement and firefighters.

Jones said Rockford City Manager Michael Young and he came up with a bold new plan to maintain services to the citizens of Rockford in a more efficient way. It called for months of training of all Rockford police officers and also all Department of Public Services employees to become certified medical responders and firefighters. No one else in the state of Michigan has a model like this.

“It is a whole new structure,” said Jones.

Chief of the Department of Public Safety Dave Jones points out part of the unique fire suppression system at the Rockford Towers.

Since April 7, all medical calls for assistance have been answered by law enforcement officers, who have undergone the months of training needed to qualify for their new role. Their patrol vehicles have all been outfitted to also serve as first responder medical units.

At the conclusion of this plan, Chief Reus will be the fire marshal, one firefighter will be crossed trained as a police officer and assigned to the enforcement division, and one position will be eliminated sometime next year. This will restructure the fire service division to have only paid on-call firefighters with no full-time city employees assigned to just the fire service. With the new plan, all enforcement division and public services division employees will be considered full-time firefighters.

Savings to the city come from on-duty law enforcement responding to medical and fire calls during the night rather than paid on-call firefighters. In addition, training can take place during the workday rather than in overtime hours in the evening.

The model includes a complete restructuring of section leaders, with Young overseeing the entire operation, Jones in charge of law enforcement and fire, two police sergeants will be promoted to lieutenant; Jamie Davies, currently director of public works will become Lieutenant Davies; and long-term firefighter on-call Dan Vincent will become a lieutenant leading the paid on-call firefighters.

Rockford long-serving former Fire Chief Dave Reus now serves as the city’s fire marshal. With his former firefighters now under Jones’ leadership, Reus will be able to concentrate on updating and improving firefighting plans for the buildings in Rockford. Reus is tasked with updating detailed information on the city’s buildings, and updating the plans regularly. Available on computers in law enforcement vehicles and fire trucks, those responding to the scene will know exactly what to expect and do as they reach the fire.

“Chief Reus has a multitude of knowledge and resources that will be part of this new model,” Jones said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, April 18-19, the new firefighting staff of 22 individuals was able to practice on one building with an unusual fire suppressant system in place. The Towers, the city’s only high-rise apartment complex, has a structure unlike any other in the town. The building has a fire safety element built in called a dry standpipe that helps firefighters move water to where they need it and maintain proper pressure.

“That’s one of the things I learned in the training,” noted Jones. He said he had seen the red hose connection on the wall near the east door of the Towers a hundred times without realizing its import. “I always thought water came out of it, but that’s where water goes in,” he said. “It’s an innie, not an outie.”

By running hose from the Ten Mile hydrant through a fire truck, to the opening of the dry standpipe, firefighters outside on the fire truck use the sophisticated controls to maintain the exact number of pressure to the water the firefighters inside need to control the hose and fight the fire.

“That’s not like holding the garden hose in your back yard,” Jones described. “It’s like fighting a python. Too little pressure and you can’t get the water where you need it, too much and you can’t hang onto the hose.”

In the case of the Thursday practice, DPW Director Jamie Davies used his control panel on the fire truck to give firefighters inside approximately 100 pounds of pressure. On the fourth floor, firefighter Phil Vincent noted that each floor in elevation reduces the water’s pressure by about ten pounds. Since his fire training, Davies knows he has to give the water leaving the truck about 150 pounds of pressure to give Vincent his 100 pounds of pressure four floors up.

Jones said the training was extensive and city crews made personal and professional sacrifices during this time of change. “We had to continue services while they were out of their jobs for the training and they had to be away from their families and walk away from their personal lives for this time.”

He said during the training no one was able to take any time off because everyone not in training was needed to serve in their absence.

“We are all making sacrifices to continue to provide the same services while facing shortfalls in revenue,” Jones stated. “We are all doing different tasks that we didn’t plan on. We are driven by the fact that we want to stay on pace with the services we offer to our residents.”

Jones had recently joked at a City Council meeting, “I never expected to see me—a crusty old copper—to be climbing ladders and slinging hoses.”

This highly unusual model didn’t happen without considerable planning and study. Jones said he had been analyzing statistical information about safety in Rockford over the past seven years and believed a structure like this could be the best way to maintain services.

“This was budget-driven,” said Jones. “There are 3,000 fewer police in the state of Michigan than there were in 2001. Cities are not able to replace them.”

Jones said the restructuring was meticulously planned before going to the considerable and ongoing effort to change the job duties of three departments. “We did a lot of planning. We did this based on a long-term study. You don’t take the first step until you know it is the right step.”

Jones said the City will likely continue to face economic struggles, and if the Personal Property Tax is eliminated, the City will lose an additional $60,000 a year. “That’s a lot of operating costs.”

Young said the elimination of the Personal Property Tax is about $300,000 to us a year, although the state says it may replace 81 percent of the lost revenue which would leave Rockford $60,000 short each year.

“The state wants to create a fund to replace the 81 percent with expiring tax credits but the expiring tax credits don’t add up to 81 percent of the replacement revenue [state of Michigan math],” said Young. “The fund that the state would create would need to be appropriated each year, so if I were a betting man I would say the state will raid that fund like they have raided every other fund earmarked to support local units.” Which is all the more reason to continue to find new ways to operate as efficiently as possible.

At this year’s Relay for Life, the first lap will represent the new Public Safety Department of the City of Rockford. For the last nine years, the Rockford Fire Department has proudly led the first lap around the track at North Rockford Middle School before the 24-hour fundraiser for the American Cancer Society commences. This year, see firefighters in their gear, but joined by Rockford Police and Department of Public Works all walking together as one safety unit serving the citizens of Rockford.

“Behind the scenes we worked very hard for this to happen,” said Jones. “It’s not very often we ask for recognition because doing our jobs is what we signed up to do. This is something really special, something really unique and really creative. We are going to keep our heads high and do our best for the City of Rockford.”

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