Township & Fire Department Officials At Breaking Point Over Township Effort To Change Fire Code
Following concerns voiced by a number of local fire department officials and some home owners about how a proposed change to the fire code would compromise safety in a serious way, the Saugatuck Township Board on Wednesday night voted to table the proposed changes.
The motion passed 3-to-2 in a roll call vote, with Saugatuck Township Treasurer Lori Babinski and Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich being the dissenting voices.
The board took the action after heeding fire department officials’ claims the township was acting unilaterally, not providing the opportunity to meet and discuss the most recent version of the proposed township ordinance amendment affecting the International Fire Code (IFC).
“The International Fire Code, to be honest, a lot of it was written in blood. To make it less safe (by modifying it) is going backwards,” Saugatuck Township Fire District Captain Linus Starring told the board, echoing very similar sentiments from other fire personnel.
Road widths, turnarounds, sufficient driveways and retention ponds for bigger developments, and response times—all vital for proper access for the emergency equipment—would be impacted by any changes to the IFC, say fire officials.
“I believe your manager (Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan) owes the fire chief (Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik) an apology,” said Starring.
“I’ve had a business in this town for a long time and if I had a manager like that (Sheridan) operating my business, he would not be a manager any longer,” added Starring, referring to the district’s claims the township - especially Sheridan - was acting irresponsibly in the process.
Township officials response was brief and conciliatory.
“(After tonight’s comments from fire district personnel) I just got a very uncomfortable feeling about amending this,” said Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIlwaine, who made the motion to table the matter.
“We are not in agreement and we should be. We were adversarial tonight. Let’s get to a point we are not adversarial.”
Similarly, Saugatuck Township Supervisor Jonathan Phillips noted, “There needs to be some discussion with them (fire district officials) and that hasn’t happened yet.”
Still, the issue seems to imply a power struggle between the township and the fire district has and is brewing.
“As you can see coming from the Michigan Township (Association), townships are not required to adopt or enforce the International Fire Code,” Rudich told The Local Observer Monday.
“However, we have adopted the fire code (in 2002), and we approve an update every five years. We wanted to make some changes in those sections we had problems with,” added Rudich.
“We wanted to protect the builder and developer from some overreaching (on the part of the fire department).”
To provide one example, Rudich claims that Chief Janik has at times overcharged developers for building inspections on a parcels that Janik thought provided for more buildings or development than was actually the case.
In contrast, Bill Lefley, a real estate broker who built a family home at Windwood Lane, informed the township in his April 5 memo in support of the fire department. His statement, in part, read:
“Although meeting the access codes for the road and water supply (a 16- to 20-foot-wide road, two turnarounds, a retention pond with a dry hydrant) was an additional expense to our family, we are glad that we did it.
“There have been a number of incidences where the STFD and EMS were called to Windwood Lane and were able to gain sufficient access for the emergencies,” said Lefley. “Without the proper road widths and turnarounds, response times may have been increased and a not so positive outcome may have occurred.”
The friction between township officials and fire department leaders over this issue has been building.
For example, Sheridan, at a meeting attended by Phillips, Chief Janik, Fire Board Chair Jane VerPlank and others, reportedly became irate and, shaking his finger in Janik’s face, shouted, “We own you” when the township’s lead fire official balked at the proposed changes Sheridan wanted to make, which included stripping parts of the IFC from the township rules.
That meeting became so heated with Sheridan apparently losing his temper, that Township Supervisor Phillips told Sheridan to leave the meeting. Sheridan was also chastised by VerPlank for his unprofessional actions.
In apparent disregard for the fire officials’ opinions, and despite the fact that Chief Janik is considered one of the preminent fire chiefs in the State of Michigan, township leaders have apparently been trying to strip various fire inspection duties from the fire department’s perviews.
Instead, Sheridan and Rudich reportedly have been suggesting that those fire inspection duties be taken over by township personnel, all of whom have no expertise in fire inspection or firefighting duties.
Township board members indicated they will again take up the issue of changing the existing township fire codes at its May meeting and will continue to hold discussions with fire officials on the matter.