Emergency Services in East Lansing Reaching “Tipping Point,” Chiefs Warn

Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 7:52 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg

East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro and Police Chief Larry Sparkes are warning of the dangers to the public from inadequate staffing of emergency personnel in East Lansing. City Council has been considering allowing further reductions in staffing in response to the City’s ongoing financial problems.

Talifarro and Sparkes addressed Council meeting at their discussion-only work session on January 16. City Manager George Lahanas explained that he had been speaking on behalf of the Chiefs during the ongoing City budget conversations, but that he felt it would be useful for Council to hear from the two directly.

Talifarro, who is also the Fire Chief for the City of Lansing, explained that, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the minimum requirement for fighting a fire at a 2,000-square-foot single-family home is 14 firefighters, and that many East Lansing homes exceed that square footage. The minimum number of initial responders increases to 27 firefighters for garden-style apartment buildings, which would be a two- to three-story apartment building.

According to Talifarro (above), apartment fires are fairly common in East Lansing and in such cases ELFD must often rely on mutual aid agreements with surrounding municipalities: “Even if we were to take [fire personnel in] all of East Lansing, and all of Meridian, we would still have to get several units from some other department, whether it’s Lansing or someplace else to get to even close to just the initial response” recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

The minimum number of responders for a high-rise apartment building, like the ones being built downtown as part of the Center City District project, is 42. East Lansing’s Fire Department is staffed by a minimum of 11 firefighters at a time, working on 24-hour shifts. ELFD operates at minimum levels about 80% of the time according to Talifarro. Because of East Lansing’s mutual aid agreements, East Lansing firefighters also respond to emergency calls in other communities.

“People say, ‘Well, we’ll rely more on our partners,’” said Talifarro. “Well, we have been doing that, more and more and more. And they also rely on us more and more and more, which is also driving up numbers on both sides. I think we’re reaching a tipping point. We’re getting extremely strained.”

Talifarro showed the Council a chart comparing East Lansing to other Big 10 university cities, showing East Lansing currently staffing far below the average.

He said that some of the comparisons which have been made during budget cut conversations, such as the comparison between East Lansing and Saginaw, are not really informative because of the different types of calls handled in these cities. Saginaw currently staffs 50 firefighters compared to East Lansing’s 51, but they only handled about 3230 runs in the last year, compared to East Lansing’s Fire Department’s handling of 5507 in 2017.

This difference is at least partially due to the fact that East Lansing’s Fire Department also functions as the City’s primary ambulance service, with East Lansing firefighters not only stabilizing people at the scene but also transporting them to the hospital. (All East Lansing’s Fire Fighters are also paramedics.)

According to Chief Talifarro, in East Lansing, the EMS side of the Fire Department actually economically supplements the firefighting side, because East Lansing is able to bill many insurance companies for EMS services. Although the Department bills out about $2.3 million dollars per year, it is only able to recover about $1.3 in revenue. The gap is due to various factors like insurance caps or individual inability to pay.

Although it would appear East Lansing is losing approximately one million dollars per year in uncollected ambulance fees, Talifarro explained that the staff costs involved with those ambulance runs would be incurred whether East Lansing operated an EMS service or not. ELFD would not be able to reduce their staffing levels enough to compensate, since they are already operating below the required service level for firefighting.

East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas explained the situation this way: “In the event of a fire, each one of those paramedics becomes a firefighter.”

Councilmember Erik Altman asked whether cutting EMS service on MSU’s campus would save the City money. Talifarro explained that it would not. Because of mutual aid agreements, East Lansing responders would still have to respond to emergencies on campus but would lose the ability to bill for their services.

At the same meeting of Council, Police Chief Larry Sparkes (below), appointed to his position in August of 2017, showed a graph of calls for service (including officer-initiated contacts like traffic stops) and the number of police officers on staff in East Lansing. According to Sparkes’ data, ELPD went from 57 officers on staff to 49 between 2016 and 2017, when eight officers retired and were not replaced due to budget cuts. The result was a decline of 757 service calls, which Sparkes characterized as a decline in “general law enforcement.”

According to Sparkes, the FBI suggests that police departments serving a community the size of East Lansing should staff 1.6 officers per thousand residents. Currently East Lansing is staffing about 1 per thousand. By comparison, both Lansing and MSU have staffing levels of 1.7 per thousand. MSU’s police department has 90 officers currently serving.

To demonstrate the strain this low level of staffing puts on East Lansing, Sparkes shared a recent situation: An accident in the 127/496 corridor required officers to go to and stay on the scene. Safety protocol dictates that, in addition to the responding officer, two additional officers be parked back “in strategic locations just to slow people down so that more injuries and more accidents don’t occur.”

Now, because of staff reductions, East Lansing currently has only four officers plus a supervisor on each police shift. In this case, while three ELPD officers were at the scene of the accident, ELPD received three additional calls which each required two responding officers. These included a suicidal person, a call to a business downtown needing police assistance, and a fight involving five-to-six people.

“Basically,” Sparkes told Council, “we didn’t have enough people to cover the responses needed in our community. As a Chief, I do get concerned with that, not only for the safety of the public but for the safety of my officers, as well. If I have a call that requires two officers, that’s to keep everyone safe, and sending one officer—that really concerns me.”

Sparkes talked about two ELPD positions that might have to be eliminated as “luxuries that we can no longer afford.” These are the School Response Officer, stationed at East Lansing High School, and the Community Outreach Lieutenant.

He talked about how both these positions build important community relationships, and how the loss of these positions would lead to the loss of community policing efforts throughout the city. But, he said, “We need to be concentrating on calls for service, emergency situations and concentrating on community safety in general” as the first priority of the department.

East Lansing has already eliminated their Tri-County Metro position, which Sparkes said was a loss when the city is facing increasing rates of drug overdoses. East Lansing had nine opioid overdoses last year, three of which resulted in death.

Councilmember Aaron Stephens suggested that perhaps negotiations could be opened with the East Lansing Schools, which already pays part of the School Resources Officer’s salary, to take on more of that cost rather than eliminating that position. He also suggested that an agreement could possibly be negotiated with MSU to take on police duties in areas such as Cedar Village, which is mostly populated by MSU Students.

The discussion at Council is part of ongoing public discussions about attempts to reduce expenditures and increase revenue.

 

Note: After this article was published, we corrected the mininum daily staffing for ELFD to 11 and also added the information, provided to ELi by Chief Talifarro, that ELFD is operating about 80% of the time at minimum staffing.