Battle Lines Are Drawn Between Saugatuck Township & Fire Department Officials Over Proposed Changes To Township's Fire Codes & Related Ordinances; Township Putting Public Safety At Risk, Says Fire Chief
The discussion got fiery at Monday’s local fire department board meeting.
The heated talk related to proposed changes Saugatuck Township officials want to make to their ordinances and policies regarding the International Fire Code and also cost-recovery rules that, in effect, would take away fire-related inspections and cost-recovery authority responsibilities from fire department officials and put them in the hands of the township’s building inspector and zoning administrator.
In a related stunning move, township officials are also trying to take the fire department safety experts/fire inspectors out of the process of fire inspections and reviews of hotels and other commercial properties and putting those inspections in the hands of township officials who have no fire inspection experience or certifications, “which is a threat to the safety of visitors, residents and building owners,” say fire department officials.
By taking this tack to try and change/revise/eliminate the International Fire Code, Saugatuck Township officials are endangering the lives of firefighters, first-responders and local residents, warns Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik.
Neither the township’s building inspector nor its zoning administrator have any fire-inspection experience, certifications or training to conduct those types of building/fire safety inspections and make those type of safety decisions, according to Janik, other local fire department personnel and a review of the professional experiences of the township employees.
In an interview Wednesday with The Local Observer, an obviously angered and concerned Janik said the ongoing effort by township officials - led by Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Township Manager Aaron Sheridan - is a “serious misuse of power” by township officials who are “consistently inconsistent” in their decisions and actions.
The heated rhetoric and political divide between the fire department and township officials is reaching a crisis point as Janik says the township leaders are now attempting to ram through changes to long-time township ordinances and policies “that puts my firefighters, first-responders and the public in great danger…and I can’t sit by and just accept this. If these township officials are allowed to do this, people’s lives will be put in jeopardy and that’s not an overstatement. It’s that simple.”
Impacted by any change being put forth by the township are Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township residents who are all served by the Saugatuck Township Fire Department.
The township’s efforts to change the International Fire Code - which provides decades-old established and respected rules and regulations for local fire departments and government officials to follow to ensure maximum safety for residents and building owners - and once adopted lowers a municipality’s insurance rates that taxpayers foot the bill for - has many people, not just fire officials, scratching their heads in confusion.
The only public explanation so far offered by township officials as to why there needs to be any change to the International Fire Codes is that some developers have complained that the fire department’s interpretation and enforcement of them is sometimes onerous and costly for them.
Township officials Rudich and Sheridan have been less than open about their efforts to change and rewrite the township fire codes as they secretly began rewriting them earlier this year without informing or including fire department officials or even members of the Saugatuck Township Board or Planning Commission in the process.
The public also was never informed of Rudich’s and Sheridan’s efforts.
When news of their secret plans to rewrite the International Fire Code became public shortly before the pair tried to push through a township board vote to accept their changes, outraged fire department personnel and members of the public came out in force at a township board meeting this past spring expressing their anger and fear over the effort.
Faced with that outpouring of rage and concern, the township board voted to adjourn the vote and publicly said township officials would work with the fire chief and his staff to find some resolution to the stand-off through negotiations.
But Fire Chief Janik now says he was deceived by the township leaders who, during these recent meetings that forced the hiring of lawyers on both sides - and at great taxpayer expense - first verbally accepted various negotiated changes to the proposed rules and regs, but then recently released a written proposal that once again included much of the same old unacceptable language as “the township first tried to rush through that simply endangers the public and my firefighters.”
Janik says some of the problematic changes the township is trying to push through via ordinance and policy changes include:
* Exempting one- and two-family homes from the fire code’s development requirements.
* Placing fire code enforcement responsibilities in the hands of the township building inspector and zoning administrator despite the fact they have no expertise, experience or certification in fire-prevention or fire-inspection.
* Limiting the fire department’s ability to determine and/or recover costs of emergency services responses from those members of the public responsible for those charges.
“I’m tired of getting bullied and pushed around (by the township administration). I made my (negotiated) changes in the fire code (in an effort to compromise) and I keep getting pushed more and more. Every time I a get a revision, it’s changed,” says the fire chief.
Janik says he believes certain township officials (including Rudich and Sheridan) are simply engaging in a “power grab” by trying to cut out the fire department for fire-related inspections and decisions…which would greatly endanger area residents.
“I don’t know if there is something else here at play or not, but what they (township officials) are doing makes absolutely no sense and is too serious to ignore. The fire department is not here to rubber stamp stupid decisions, we’re here to protect the people. What they (township) are trying to do is unconscionable and just plain wrong. And people need to know what is going on and start speaking up for their own safety.”
Asked about why he thought Rudich and Sheridan felt it necessary to launch this effort in secrecy from everyone - despite the fact they represent the township’s taxpayers - Janik replied, “Only they can answer that. But if everything was on the up and up, why did they try to keep all this secret and trying to rush it through before the public or even us knew what they were doing? That’s a question the public should be asking because we sure have been.”
The International Fire Code prescribes nationally recognized minimum standards for protecting life and property related to fire hazards.
One of the major sticking points between the fire department and township officials is related to regulation of private roads and driveways, those elements particularly related to road width, water source for fire suppression, turnaround space, etc.
Asked to comment, Saugatuck Township Zoning Administrator Steve Kushion leveled similar charges against Janik when he spoke to the Local Observer Newspaper Wednesday morning. “We have had meetings with Greg (Janik), Chris (Saugatuck Township Fire District Deputy Chief Chris Mantels) and fire board members for hours and hours about this (amendments to the International Fire Code and related proposed township ordinance amendments) and everything seemed fine at the end.,” said Kushion. “But then they would take two weeks to review it and it would all be taken apart.”
The chief and his fire officers continue to say changes to the International Fire Code not only will severely compromise their safety and the safety of the residents they serve, but also would put township (taxpayers) at risk from liability lawsuits that could occur if untrained, inexperienced, and non-certified township officials try to make fire-related safety decisions without the input of the trained fire inspectors/personnel from the fire department.
Township representatives deny this will occur, and argue the objective is to make the permit process less cumbersome for builders by easily addressing any fire department concerns via zoning/ordinance changes. They also say they want to protect the township against liability.
Both Saugatuck and Douglas officials have formally—through resolutions—expressed their opposition to changes to the fire code and have called on the township not to go ahead with those changes. Yet consensus seems far from reach as township officials dig their heels in.
Many of the department’s fire officers were present Monday, some publicly arguing the township’s use of an attorney to advance their proposal was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Zoning administrators administer this stuff (regulation of fire codes related to driveways, turnarounds, etc.) in areas where there are no fire departments. (Township Zoning Administrator) Steve Kushion is a great guy, has expertise in zoning, but not fire inspections or certifications,” says Janik.
“But township officials want to give that control (to Kushion) because all he (Kushion) needs is a ruler,” Janik told the board, hand gesturing quotation marks for the word “ruler.
In discussing the need to protect the public - and builders - Janik adds, “We have some great builders in this area, just phenomenal. But when you consider the size of the homes, the heat release rates, the fuel loads, and the long driveways, you don’t reduce the (fire code) requirements for builders.
“I love the builders,” notes Janik. “But let them stick to the four walls within. They are not there at 2 o’clock in the morning. They are not there when a four year old stops breathing. This is public safety for the betterment of Douglas, Saugatuck Township and Saugatuck city…we are experienced, we are plan reviewers, we are certified fire inspectors, we are firefighters. Wouldn’t that be better handled by us? No, apparently not according to Saugatuck Township officials. They are the only ones asking to change this. Why?”
Kushion in similar as well as contrasting fashion, told The Local Observer, “He (Janik) is no more a zoning administrator than I am a firefighter. I don’t want to be a firefighter. This is a zoning issue, this is about zoning private roads and driveways.
“People would have to go through the township to get a review and then have to go through Greg (Janik) to get another zoning review and Greg charged them for it,” said Kushion. “It was a double review (the second one triggered by the International Fire Code) and people were not expecting that. That is why we wanted to bring it back in-house. We felt the (Fire Code) was an overreach in that regard.”
“In all the places I have worked at (Ada, MI, and Holland, MI), I have never had a fire chief get involved with a single-family home driveway and they don’t want to. That is something why we wanted to give control to zoning rather than the fire chief,” adds Kushion.
The tense atmosphere at Monday’s meeting led Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIIwaine, township representative on the fire board, to make a number of moves that speak to the rift between certain township officials and the fire department and some fire board members.
For example, McIIwaine was the only dissenting vote in the reappointment of Saugatuck City Council Member Jane Verplank to remain as chair of the Fire Board during Monday’s meeting.
Referring to the friction between the fire department and township officials over the fire code and cost-recovery issues, McIIwaine told his fire board colleagues, “(Last) Wednesday we seemed to be in agreement on the length of roads, turnarounds, etc.
Janik refuted McIlwaine’s statement. “No, I am sorry we did not. In the draft you (township) provided us, issues of fire flow was omitted, water fire protection was omitted, and…permits were omitted.”
Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan and Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich Wednesday declined to comment on the ongoing dispute.
Kushion told The Local Observer Wednesday that the township—with legal counsel assistance—will continue to move forward with changes to township ordinances so as to shift certain International Fire Code standards to those ordinances related to private road and driveways, claiming they are “almost going to mirror the IFC (International Fire Code).”
Similarly, Janik said his department will also continue to talk with its attorney about the future direction.
The Saugatuck Township Fire District is a jointly supported and funded entity of the Tri-Community (the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas and Saugatuck Township).
While any individual member can independently change or eliminate the fire code from its books legally, doing so not only goes against “the spirit of intergovernmental cooperation,” but could also have a negative impact on the fire department’s services being provided in a uniform fashion throughout the three jurisdictions, according to a resolution approved in May by the Douglas City Council.