2018-05-24 / Local News

Fire chief pleads for new equipment

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Cedar Area Fire & Rescue can’t continue to operate with equipment loaned from other departments.

So says fire chief Chris Comeaux who appeared before the Solon Township Board last week with a request for additional moneys to replace old, outdated equipment.

“We’re in a unique situation where we need to reverse several years of neglect,” Comeaux said to township officials. “Our backs are against the wall and to be honest, I’m a little worried.”

CAFR was established in April 2016, replacing the Solon-Centerville Fire Department that provided service to Kasson and Cleveland townships on a contractual basis.

The new department serves a 167-square-mile area which includes Solon, Centerville, Cleveland and Kasson townships — the largest coverage area in the county.

Comeaux, the department’s first fulltime chief, came on board Feb. 1 and one of this first tasks was to complete an inventory of equipment.

The CAFR apparatus includes one engine, a tank, two ambulances, a wildfire truck, a Kubota ATV and a snowmobile.

However, the average age of the equipment — 15 years — calls for replacement under the N.F.P.A. (National Fire Protection Association) standards.

And it’s showing its age.

“I haven’t had a complete equipment fleet since I got here,” Comeaux said. “Every time we get something fixed another piece of equipment breaks down.”

Last week it was the department’s “new” 2011 ambulance that was out of service.

“It’s blowing out smoke and won’t go over 40 mph,” the chief said.

While it was in the shop, rescue personnel used the department’s 1997 ambulance, which should have been retired in 2012, based on N.F.P.A. standards.

Tuesday afternoon the department’s tanker had to be taken to Traverse City for repairs.

“Fortunately, the Leland Fire Department has stepped up and loaned us a pumper for a week. But we can’t rely on our neighbors to keep bailing us out,” Comeaux said.

Yesterday morning, the Leelanau Township Fire Department loaned CAFR an engine on a short-term basis.

“I can’t say enough how grateful I am to our neighboring departments,” the chief said.

Last month, the chief presented his five-year strategic plan to the CAFR’s member townships and asked the boards to commit to paying $90,000 over the next two years to support equipment purchases — over and above the roughly $170,000 paid currently by each township.

Cleveland and Kasson townships have already approved the payments.

The Centerville Township Board has not yet acted on the request. However, board members did earmark money for this purpose in the 2018-19 budget.

Solon Township officials haven’t committed and may not be able to depending on the outcome of the Aug. 7 election.

The Township Board agreed in March to place a 1.75-mill property tax proposal on the ballot to fund fire and rescue. This will replace a 1.50-mill levy that expired in December.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if we drain our account, we may not be able to make our payments for operations,” clerk Shirley Mikowski said. “We could be slitting our own throat.”

In the past year, the township has been hit with unanticipated expenses resulting from a dam breach at Joe Vlack Memorial Park.

Solon also split the costs of renovations to the township hall to provide sleeping quarters for fire and rescue personnel who are now available on a 24/7 basis. Cost to the townships was about $70,000 apiece.

Mikowski suggested perhaps the other townships served by the department could kick in extra funds until Solon Township is in a position to do so.

“Right now, we can’t write you a check,” supervisor Jim Lautner said. “If (the millage) passes in August we’ll have a better idea. But right now, we don’t have it.”

Meanwhile, audience members who heard Comeaux’s plea immediately offered cash donations and expressed an interest in organizing a fundraising group to support the department.

“Support from the people of Solon Township has been great,” the chief said. “It’s a five-year plan. It will work. It’s just a matter of getting it going.”

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