The difficult deliberations over the Holland city budget have put the city's firefighting force in the spotlight. With tight budgets likely ahead for several years, it's a good time to re-examine the structure, expense and expectations of the fire service in the city, and in our townships as well.
The city of Holland has the only full-time fire service in our area, with an authorized staff of 21 full-time personnel and 30 "part-paid" firefighters compensated on a per-call basis; with a current budget of $2.7 million, the fire division represents one of the biggest expenses in the city budget. By contrast, Holland Township, Zeeland and all other area municipalities rely on fire departments staffed by part-paid and volunteer firefighters.
Both city and township residents seem comfortable with those arrangements. We've heard no real dissatisfaction with our township departments, nor any widespread sentiment among city residents to switch to a part-paid force or dual-function public safety officers who would handle both police and firefighting duties.
City residents seem to value the reliable and quick response that comes with having professional firefighters at their stations 24/7. Earlier this month, city council members voted in favor of increasing a proposed tax hike to balance the city budget rather than lay off two firefighters (the final budget vote is Wednesday), and a Sentinel online poll asking if the city should switch to a volunteer force, 72 percent responded "no."
Yet it's worth asking if the current system is appropriate and sustainable today. Holland's city budget is tightening at a time when smoke detectors, home inspections and other safety measures have sharply reduced the number of house fires. Councilman Brian Burch cut to the core ... when he questioned if the city is getting the most for its money considering that the fire service handled only 84 fire calls last year and that the great majority of its 2,800 responses were medical calls.
Meanwhile, volunteer fire departments are not without their own long-term challenges. In Michigan and across the country, departments are finding it more difficult to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters ...
The first step for city residents and officials is defining expectations about fire protection. Residents and officials may well decide that the current system ... is one they want to keep and one they're willing to pay for. ... (A) fire protection system that evolved at a time when structure fires were much more common and our townships were rural communities merits re-examination ... (A) study of a regional fire service is warranted, particularly as to whether it could create greater efficiencies in sharing full-time and part-time staff, adjusting coverage territories and sharing equipment. ...