North Berrien Fire Rescue needs full time chief; study report cites poor leadership, identity, goss

By Annette Christie

The findings of a North Berrien Fire Department organizational structure and function study were presented by professionals Lewis G. Bender and Jeffrey Swanson at a joint meeting of the municipalities that are part of the department.  Coloma Mayor Jim Polashak, Hagar Township Supervisor Izzy DiMaggio, and Coloma Charter Township Supervisor Ken Parrigin led the meeting held at the North Berrien Senior Center on Tuesday, June 7 at 7:00 p.m.  The purpose of the study was to review and observe all facets of the North Berrien Fire Department and for Swanson and Bender to make suggestions related to the structure of the organization. They reviewed the top observations at the meeting that was attended by approximately 40 people including many of the leaders of Coloma City, Coloma Township and Hagar Township.   At the top of all of their observations and their suggestions was the main focus of the study, the North Berrien Fire Department needs a full time fire chief.  “This is just the reality,” Bender said as he began the presentation adding, “I don’t see how a part time chief could get this amount of work done.”  Besides the recommendation for the full time fire chief, the top observation of the study was that without question, the board members, officers and firefighters of the department were found to be very dedicated to their fellow citizens and to the communities. “They deserve the gratitude and respect of their fellow citizens,” the report stated. “If you live in this district you should be damn well proud of this fire department, you’ve got dedicated people. “ Bender said. Secondly it was observed that the lack of consistent leadership is negatively impacting the department.  They noted that in the past several years there has been a revolving door of leadership on the board and in the position of Fire Chief. This lack of consistent leadership and the variance between the last two chiefs has been great.   A continuation of the lack of identity as a fire district remains in question.  Bender said that many in the process of being interviewed noted that there is a still an “us vs. them” or “Station #1 vs. Station #2” attitude since the merger of Coloma and Hagar into one department. The report stated, “Several people within the department and in the public questioned whether the merger should have ever occurred or should continue.”  This is being exemplified by high levels of gossip and a low morale in the department.   The lack of consistent training was noted as one of the top observations.  Bender said that the fire personnel training has declined in the past several months and needs to be reinvigorated soon.  In addition, a commercial retail and rental inspections program needs to be put in place.   Bender recommended that the Fire Board be restructured to include the supervisors of the two townships and the city mayor.  He does not recommend this as a permanent assignment but rather a temporary one until this transition period is over, a fire chief is selected, and the department is back on track again.  Bender stated, “This board is overwhelmed and are taking on a task that no volunteer board should have to take on.”  By adding them to the board, these elected officials would show that the unification of the fire district is real.  Top elected leaders make a commitment and they can bring stability, consistency, and an oversight of the department and a new chief.  Bender reiterated that this would only be temporary, not permanent, and only if those individuals agreed to do that.    The implementation of a strategic plan for the department was recommended. “Absent goals that define where you want to take the department and the next thing you get are personalities and there are a lot of personalities around here,” Bender said.  He recommended that the creation and implementation of a strategic plan should wait until after the new chief is in place.  “The chief needs to be very active in that,” Bender said.  Fire Chief Jeffrey Swanson presented more on the technical observations of the department. First and foremost the department needs to specify in the strategic plan and goal setting, which NFPA standards it will strive to reach and / or comply with.   In the list of those standards include training, safety codes, occupational safety and health programs, and staffing.  The fire department has operated in two distinctly different models of staffing for emergencies under the two last fire chiefs.  Swanson said that the department should establish what the service delivery model will look like for fire and rescue calls, evaluate the daytime availability of responders, and evaluate the need and ability to provide first response EMS service.   Swanson stressed that the Fire Chief should have a local community presence and suggested that he or she can do this by being accessible, transparent, and available in community events as well as being active with the Firefighters Association and the Ladies Auxiliary.  The training of the firefighters is a key factor to the success of the department, the safety of members, and in creating and reinforcing the team approach.  Swanson said that the Fire Chief can set the bar in terms of the training.  The Fire Chief must attend a majority of the trainings to observe both the skills as well as evaluate the delivery of the training.  That training should focus on the NFPA standards that Swanson mentioned earlier.   “We believe that immediate steps should be taken to reinforce training for all members,” Swanson said. Swanson noted that the Fire Chief will need to be a working chief and be responsibility for completing fire inspections including at the schools. The chief should evaluate the need for a rental occupancy inspection program and if warranted, should be responsible for planning, organizing, completing and evaluating the rental inspections.  A capital replacement program as well as a maintenance program for all apparatus should be put into place.  Some of the comments included the suggestion of having a hiring committee to select the chief position. Bender replied that the ones that should hire the chief are the ones that he/she is going to work for.  Coloma Township Trustee Matt Moser commented that he would like to see a Fire Chief that not only reports to his/her Fire Board but one that would also communicate with the township boards and city commission.  Coloma Township Trustee Bryan Duffield commented on the idea of putting the supervisors and the mayor on the Fire Board temporarily with a comparison of putting the principal in the classroom as a substitute teacher; everyone tends to act a little differently when it’s the principal vs. a substitute teacher.   As a wrap up to the presentation Bender said that he and Swanson both agreed that an interim chief should be hired in the meantime.  Bender noted that that suggestion is not meant to be disparaging to the current Captains or Lieutenants.  He suggested that the training get upgraded as soon as possible and that to help close the gap between Station 1 and 2 the command officers from each of those stations should rotate so that they are exposed to all parts of the department. Bender said, “They need to think like a district and act like a district.”  He recommended that the recruitment efforts be stepped up and that the department looks at new ideas for recruitment such as working with the local Vo-Tech program. Bender and Swanson agree that having 25 firefighters on staff would put the North Berrien Fire Department in a good place.  He recommended that City and Township employees should be encouraged to become part of the fire service. As they had discussed, the department is down in daytime responses and there is a workforce city and township employees that are working every day right in the community.   Bender and Swanson were brought to the area in March of 2016 when the elected officials of Coloma Township, Hagar Township, and the City of Coloma requested that an unbiased, neutral study be conducted regarding significant questions impacting the future of the North Berrien Fire Service.  The two interviewed over 30 people within the fire dept., outside the fire dept., former chiefs, neighbor chiefs, and community members among others.  The discussions were confidential and will be kept that way. Where to go next Hagar Township Trustee Izzy DiMaggio asked if all communities decide that we go with a new fire chief – what next? Swanson said that they first need to determine their expectations of the new chief including but not limited to residency requirements, experience, education, certification levels, etc.  Bender added, “Fixing this organization will take someone who has been a fire chief before.”  Swanson recommended using an Assessment Center to expand the search for the position. He said he would expect that it would be open for a time period of 4-6 weeks.  He described the vetting process, the number of applicants to receive phone interviews, followed by a smaller scaled down number of applicants for in-person interviews.   He said an Assessment Center tests dimensions, problem solving, group speaking, interaction with other candidates, and collaborative team effort. DiMaggio asked about the cost to hire someone to do this process and Swanson estimated $10,000.   Mayor Jim Polashak said that it would not be a subject at the upcoming Monday night Commission meeting as the City Commission just got the report.  “We will talk about it at the next meeting, discuss it and vote on it then,” Polashak said.    Coloma Township Supervisor Ken Parrigin said that the Coloma Township Board will analyze what they have been given and discuss it.  He suggested that it would be a   month before the township does anything.  “We will go out for a fire chief and we will hire someone to do it.  We will not do it on our own,” Parrigin said.  DiMaggio said that the board meets on Monday night and they will allow public comments on the subject but will not take action on that night.  He expects that they will make a decision in July.  All three of the municipalities will be putting the study results up on their respective websites for the residents to review.  Copies of the report will be provided to all the firefighters.

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