fd_hose120The Lansing Fire Commissioners received a letter from the parents of Ryan Burris, a 28 year old man who perished in a Lansing house fire in 2011.  The letter was an emotional indictment of the fire commissioners, arguing passionately for a paid fire department to replace the current volunteer personnel on the grounds that response time would have been much less, and possibly saved their son's life.  The family claimed that departments with smaller budgets than Lansing are manned with paid personnel.

"There's no way that's possible," Lansing Fire Commission Chairman Robert Wagner says.  "I think we're as good as any paid department around here.  As long as we can keep that up we're not going to visit the issue."

Lansing Fire Chief Scott Purcell says that in general people are happy with fire service in Lansing.  He notes that at most two members of the public typically attend fire commissioner meetings, a good sign because people only show up to taxing authority meetings when they're mad. 

"If that was the case I would think there would have been ten or fifteen people running for commissioner and there'd be about five thousand people turning out to vote," he says.  "What did we get? Ten people."

That was down from 19 voters the previous year and about 30 the year before that.  By that measure Lansing is quite happy with its fire district.  And that's not the only measure.  In the recent telephone survey of town and village residents, 74.2% of Town residents and 64.7% of Village residents said that fire service is good or excellent.  21.9% of residents did not rate the service because they said they had no experience with the fire department.  The number of dissatisfied residents was quite small.

The Burris letter states that the response time the morning their son died was 14 minutes, and said a paid department would likely have responded in the national standard of eight minutes.  An oft repeated statistic states that a fire doubles in size every minute.  So response times are critically important.  But response time statistics are confusing because some are calculated from the time 911 is called, while others measure the time between the time the alarm is sent by a 911 operator to responding departments and their arrival on the scene.

"Paid personnel does not guarantee (that people will survive a fire)," says Purcell.  "If that was the case people would pay whatever it costs."

A 1999 Nevada study bears that out.  The study compared volunteer and paid department response times, and concluded they were almost identical.  Paid responders arrived in a range between 6.6 minutes to 38 minutes, while volunteer response times fell between 8.3 minutes to 38 minutes.  A 2006 National Fire Data Center report concluded that local fire departments' response times to structure fires are about 5 minutes from alarm time to arrival time almost 50 percent of the time.

Fire districts also have to consider costs.  Purcell calculates that replacing the volunteer department with paid staff would more than double the cost of fire prevention to Lansing taxpayers.

"The calls in the town and the calls in the Village are 50-50," Purcell says. "You can't just hire two or three people and put them at Central station.  That's not fair to the Village, because they'd be running down there all the time.  You'd have to hire three full time responders for Central Station 24/7 and three 24/7 for the Village.  That's six, 24/7.  Four shifts and then you've got vacation time.  That's 24 people."

Purcell estimates each responder would cost in the arena of $80,000 with benefits, which comes to just over $1.9 million in payroll alone.  Based on last year's fire calls Purcell calculated each fire call would cost $4,164.  District treasurer George Gesslein says a response to a fire currently costs taxpayers about $1,000 per call, which includes the cost of heat, light, maintenance to fire trucks and equipment, and so on.  He noted that those costs are the same whether firefighters are paid or not, and that a salaried department would raise that expense to at least $5,000 per call.

Lansing Firefighters

Purcell says that ultimately each homeowner needs to share responsibility for fire safety.  With that goal in mind Lansing volunteers host school children at Central Station and visit the Lansing schools each year to teach about fire prevention and what to do if there is a fire.

"People need to have smoke detectors that work," Purcell says.  "Not one that's hanging on the wall without a battery in it."

The Lansing Fire Department is manned entirely by volunteers with a few minor paid positions for clerical work.  There are currently over 60 active volunteer emergency responders and another 20 or so who act in staff positions. 

Those volunteers responded to 889 calls in 2013.  49.94% of the calls come from the Village of Lansing, with 50.06% coming from the town outside of the Village.  Volunteers responded to every single one of the 461 fire calls, and most of the EMS calls.  Fire calls include motor vehicle accidents and storm calls as well as structure fires.  About 40% of the fire calls -- 157 in the Village and 50 in the Town -- were automatic false alarms.

Volunteers also participated in 1375.5 hours of training in-house, and 1,254.5 hours of state training courses for a total of 2630 total hours of training.  Nearly half the emergency responder members qualified for Service Awards, a program that awards dollars to a pension program if a volunteer earns enough participation points in any given year.  The program is an incentive to be more active, which increases training and performance at emergencies.

The Lansing commissioners have also ramped up efforts to attract bunkers to live at Central Station, the main hub for town emergency responses, and a new station in the Village.  A $2.3 million Central Station addition/renovation project included space for 12 bunkers, and five bunk rooms are part of the new $750,000, 63,000 square foot fire station in the Village of Lansing.  While bunkers may not be at the station when emergency calls come in, they generally reduce the initial response time, and Commission Secretary Alvin Parker says they attract more volunteers because of the social aspect of hanging out at a station where other responders are.

Central Station has bunkers now, but months after the Village station was completed, it is not quite ready for people to move in.  Commissioner Steven Oplinger says the Village station has a punch list of items that need to be completed before bunkers can move in.  He urged the commission to make sure those items are resolved quickly.

"We need some action," he said at a fire commissioner meeting Tuesday.  "The place has been sitting stale for a long time.  We have people who want to live there.  We're not providing service for the Village. We have an obligation.  Let's fill it."

Wagner said a list will be made and hoped remaining issues could be resolved before the next commission meeting in two weeks.

Wagner says Lansing won't have a paid fire department any time in the near future.

"We always say that eventually it's going to end up happening," Wagner says.  "But we don't know when.  It could be 20 years.  As long as we continue to have the participation of younger members and keep doing what we are doing now I don't foresee having a paid department."