By Jason Wesseldyk
According to Otsego city manger Aaron Mitchell, the current on-call volunteer model being used by the Otsego Fire Department is designed to handle 500 calls per year.
But the number of calls has been on the rise in recent years, peaking at 1,238—or nearly two-and-a-half times the expected amount—in 2022.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Mitchell said. “This has been a topic of conversation ever since I got here in 2018. However, due to the hard work of the OFD firefighters, they have always got by with what they had.
“That is no longer an option. When we get to a point that we are responding to 1,200-plus calls and other administrative duties are unable to be completed, among other issues, we have to change the staffing model.”
That’s why, at their regular meeting on Monday, Jan. 16, the Otsego City Commissioners passed a resolution to apply ballot language to the May ballot seeking additional Public Safety revenue.
The resolution is a repeal and replace proposal of the city’s current public safety millage that was passed for two mills in 2016 and is set to expire in 2026. The new millage, which would provide 24/7 coverage for the fire department, would be for four mills for the next 10 years.
If passed, the new millage would cost homeowners an additional two dollars for every $1,000 of taxable value on their property.
If voters approve the millage, the fire department would be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, meaning the city could continue to provide emergency medical services to its residents.
If the millage fails, however, it would mean those medial services could no longer be provided by the city.
“Should the millage not be approved and a resident called 911 for a Priority 1 or 2 medical emergency, only the ambulance would be dispatched from Plainwell EMS,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, that is where we are at.
“This millage should 100 percent be understood as a vote for medical first response or not. We have kicked the can to the end of the road. There is only one way to provide medical first response in Otsego with 1,200 calls, and that is with a staffed station. There is only one way to fund a staffed station, and that is with this millage proposal.”
The exact structure of how a fully manned fire department would look is still being discussed. According to Mitchell, it could include three full-time employees who work on a Kelly rotation (one at a time); it could be staffed by existing firefighters taking on four-hour shifts; or it could be a combination of the two.
“Fire Chief (Brandon) Weber and myself have had many discussions with OFD firefighters as well as firefighters from other departments to help understand this important decision,” Mitchell said. “Luckily, we will not need to finalize those plans until we get closer to May and by then we should have a good body of work with the utilization of the sit-times up until that point. Coverage will be the number-one concern.”
Mitchell said he expects much input from the community moving forward, as several residents have already contacted him about the millage.
“No matter what happens in the election, a needed change is coming to the OFD,” he said. “If the ballot measure is successful, we get to move forward with a staffing model that does not rely upon on-call volunteers to respond to the 3.5 calls per day. If the ballot measure fails, 76 percent of our calls (medicals) are no longer a requirement, meaning the firefighters are receiving a significant reprieve from their duties.
“Either way, the role of OFD firefighter will become significantly more tolerable in the near future.”