Restructuring of contract for fire services for Camp Grayling results in layoff of firefighters
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
A pact between the Grayling Fire Department and Camp Grayling, which provided funding for fire services at varying amounts over the last 15 years, came to an end earlier this year, resulting in three full-time firefighters being laid off.
The firefighters were given pink slips on Nov. 30.
Camp Grayling officially notified the City of Grayling and Grayling Charter Township on Aug. 1 that a contract to provide fire services on military grounds would come to an end, exercising a 30-day notice to end the agreement.
“I was a little taking aback by that,” said Grayling City Manager/Police Chief Doug Baum.
In hopes of coming up with another funding arrangement, a fund- balance kept three firefighters on the job for three months. There were forced to leave their jobs after no agreement came to fruition.
Fire Chief Russell H. Strohpaul Jr. will maintain his full-time status through June 30, the end of the city’s fiscal year. The department’s fire inspector will stay on the job until the completion of construction for Arauco’s $400 million plant in Grayling Charter Township. Fire permits and inspections for construction are still pending.
“They have paid for inspections and permits and we have to honor those,” Baum said.
Camp Grayling first asked the Grayling Fire Department to enhance firefighting capabilities to cover the Grayling Army Airfield, which is located adjacent to the city’s fire hall. A sum of $80,000 was paid per year for one-full time firefighter, and the rest of the money was split between training and equipment, including protective suits to fight a fire involving a downed aircraft.
In 2008, many projects were completed at Camp Graying and at the airfield, including the construction of barracks for year-round training and the education of soldiers.
By 2013, former officials for Camp Grayling agreed to pay the fire department $450,000 per year to have four full-time firefighters on staff seven days a week, eight hours a day during the daytime hours. That is the most difficult time to get volunteers to leave their daytime jobs to respond to a fire.
The City of Grayling and Graying Charter Township kicked in a total of $200,000 in funding.
The township contracts with the city for $120,000 per year for fire department services plus fire hall and equipment costs. The fire hall was paid off last year.
“We write them a check every year, and we pay them for half of everything,” said Grayling Charter Township Lacey Stephan III.
The funding arrangement was in place for the next four years.
In 2017, Michigan National Guard officials agreed to extend the contract for one year, but withheld $50,000 to pay for a study to obtain information for fire services needed at all military properties located throughout the state.
As a result, the fire department went to staff the department seven days a week, eight hours a day during the daytime hours.
Col. Ed Hallenbeck is the current commander for Camp Grayling. He is also the director for construction and facilities management for Department of Military Veterans Affairs.
Hallenbeck noted that 75 percent of funding for fire services was contracted with Grayling Fire Department, leaving 25 percent for Fort Custer in Battle Creek, and armories and maintenance facilities located throughout the state.
Department of Defense regulations for emergency response times to the Grayling Army Airfield is required to be within three minutes, and five to six minutes to the main camp. Hallenbeck said those standards were not being met for fire services, emergency medical responses and hazardous/materials releases.
“The lion’s share for fire and emergency services goes up here, and out of the that, we’re still not meeting the standards throughout the year,” he said.
Further, the study indicated that the fire department only responded to six calls at the main camp in 2017 out of 114 calls elsewhere for the entire year.
Hallenbeck said military officials are seeking to restructure the contract to focus on May through August, when most training occurs at Camp Grayling.
Hallenbeck said fire risks range from a downed aircraft with a release of fuel and potential loss of life, to a wildfire impacting the entire community, to small wildfires.
“From being good stewards of the federal dollars, it doesn’t make sense to apply funds where there is very low risk and low outcome of major damage if there is a fire and pushing those resources over to high risk that endangers soldiers, equipment and potentially the community if there is a wildfire,” Hallenbeck said.
Hallenbeck said Camp Grayling has obtained two fire trucks from CSI Emergency Apparatus, Inc. equipped to fight wildfires. Two more trucks are forthcoming.
The trucks, along with conducting pre-burns and installing firebreaks on military property, need to be addressed.
“That all comes into play with what we do with these dollars and we can not only try to protect the camp but the community also,” Hallenbeck.
A statement of work or solicitation of bids for Camp Grayling is expected to be issued for fire services yet this month.
Baum said local officials have met with state and federal lawmakers and a representative from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office in hopes of getting funding restored.
Baum said state leaders cannot help with the situation without a request from state military officials.
“Trying to get funding for this, here I have representatives that are willing to help, but they can’t do anything,” he said. “Their hands are tied.”
Hallenbeck countered that all funding for employees and services at Camp Grayling comes from the federal government, not from the State of Michigan.
“It would be great if they would, but if you go nationwide, all training sites are 100 percent federally funded,” Hallenbeck said.
Hallenbeck said the Grayling Fire Department could submit a bid for fire services and would likely have greater chances in getting funds. Other municipalities can also bid when operations for Northern Strike are scheduled, which involves thousands of soldiers from other states and countries on training ranges located in the northern part of the county.
“We’re trying to look at how we can help them where they’re spending their resources and helping us and matching up our resources with the resources they are expending within those municipalities,” Hallenbeck said.
Baum said the fire department cannot afford to have full-time firefighters on duty during slow military training periods.
“The city and township residents have had to shoulder the cost of providing a fire department for them for years and years, and it’s just not right,” he said.
Baum said the collaboration between the camp and the fire department allowed for community outreach programs with local schools and assistance to Mobile Medical Response ambulances for critical calls.
Now, the fire department is being expected to respond to calls at Camp Grayling without the funding.
“The camp does take a toll on local resources, and there are no property taxes to offset any of that,” Baum said.
Grayling City Clerk/Treasurer Lisa K. Johnson had hoped that a working agreement could have been reached to retain the firefighters and funds put into training. If the firefighters find new jobs, money will have to be spent on training their replacements.
“There has been a lot of investment that has been put into the training, and now we have to start all over again,” Johnson said.
Hallenbeck said he understands the situation the fire department is being put in when considering future operations.
“If we go to that four-to five-month period, if they said there is no funding and they couldn’t pay for a full-time fire force, I understand that, but I’m not sure what the solution is,” he said. “We’re trying to provide part of the solution in concert with being good stewards of the federal dollars and taking care of the federal side also.”
As far as the township is concerned, Stephan said leaders don’t want to entertain any future agreements with Camp Grayling.
“My board and Grayling Township don’t want the guard camp to be partner in this anymore and any longer,” he said. “They’re the reason the fire department is in the disarray that it is, in my opinion.”
With increased economic development on Four Mile Road, Stephan said the township could potentially increase its funding for the fire department to pay for four full-time firefighters plus the chief.
“That is what Grayling Township would like to see, and I think we’re at the point where we can do that now,” he said. “That’s the avenue we’re pursuing.”