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