City to Pursue Building Two New Fire Stations
By Beth Milligan | March 21, 2023
Traverse City commissioners voted Monday to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) for an architectural firm to design two new fire stations, replacing the city’s existing Station 1 on West Front Street and Station 2 on East Eighth Street. The city originally planned to update the stations to include gender-neutral restrooms and sleeping facilities, but the cost of those improvements – and the space they would occupy, constraining future growth – is prompting the city instead to pursue the full reconstruction of both facilities. Building new stations and possibly expanding the Traverse City Fire Department (TCFD) to become the city’s primary ambulance provider could both potentially appear as millage requests on the November ballot.
A commission ad hoc committee studying the long-term structure of the fire department recommended moving forward with an RFP for architectural services. Commissioners previously voted in November to allocate $150,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward restroom and sleeping facility upgrades to ensure the fire stations can accommodate employees of both genders. Then-City Commissioner Ashlea Walter, who sat on the ad hoc committee, acknowledged that the repairs would be a stop-gap “to get us a couple more years before we do a much larger renovation or reconstruction” of both stations.
However, a review last month from Environment Architects determined that the improvements could cost upwards of $321,000 – more than double the ARPA funding allocated to the project. “We would strongly advise that these projects potentially be part of a larger renovation based on the condition of the existing structures and the fact they will need to be addressed in (the) near future,” the firm wrote. Mayor Richard Lewis, who sits on the ad hoc committee, said the restroom and sleep area upgrades would also monopolize space needed for future growth.
TCFD Chief Jim Tuller noted that both fire stations are at the end of their life expectancy as buildings. Station 1 on West Front Street was built in 1974, while Station 2 on East Eighth Street was built in 1968. He said staff have worked hard to maintain the facilities and extend their usefulness, but that it was time to invest in stations that could meet the city’s needs in the coming decades. “We’re looking in the future 50, 60, 75 years of what the city might look like,” he said. New stations could accommodate more staff and make the city less reliant on mutual aid, allowing TCFD to protect residents “in an even stronger and more capable fashion,” Tuller said.
Part of TCFD’s future growth could include expanding to become the city’s primary ambulance provider, rather than contracting with an outside provider. North Flight began serving as the primary ambulance provider for Traverse City in 2002, with the fire department becoming outfitted in 2008 to serve as a secondary transport option. In 2020, North Flight merged with Mobile Medical Response (MMR), which took over the ambulance contract with Traverse City. A study by consulting firm TriData LLC found that the contracted provider failed for several years running to meet required standards for response times. In December, the city renegotiated contract terms with MMR to better address service issues, with either the city or MMR able to terminate the agreement at any time with 180 days’ notice.
Still, TriData found that lowering response times for EMS calls – especially as Traverse City’s population grows – could be a key consideration in making TCFD the primary responder. The firm cautioned the move would require more staff and ambulances for the fire department and would likely require a heavy upfront investment. The company encouraged city commissioners to view the proposal through the lens of improving care to residents, rather than seeing EMS services as a money-making or even revenue-neutral endeavor for the city. “A preliminary review of costs indicates that if the city decides to provide primary first response/transport, then an additional dedicated millage will be required to offset the costs of providing the service,” city staff wrote in an analysis of TriData’s findings.
Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe, who sits on the ad hoc committee, previously told The Ticker that reconstructing or rebuilding both fire stations – while necessary – will likely cost millions of dollars and potentially require going out for a millage. “Most of us are in agreement that the facilities the fire department has right now are in no way adequate – not now or for the future,” she said. But she noted that “it’ll be a larger problem to solve in how we will raise the money for that.” Lewis stressed Monday that “it’s going to take a millage” to rebuild the fire stations, become the city’s primary ambulance provider, or both.
In the coming months, the architectural RFP – which will help generate cost estimates for new fire stations – and commission deliberation about whether TCFD expands into ambulance transport will determine if one or more millage requests appears on the November ballot. Commissioners have until August 15 to approve ballot language for the fall election. At least one other request could appear on the November ballot: Commissioners Monday approved applying for a state grant to help the city purchase 528 acres to expand the Brown Bridge Quiet Area. That grant application is planned to be accompanied by a request to voters this fall to tap into the city's Brown Bridge Trust Fund to access $746,245 to cover the expansion.Comment