By Ralph Echtinaw
Although St. Louis Fire Chief Rich Apps has no immediate plans to retire, the Fire Board talked Tuesday about establishing succession protocols for the time when Apps does step down.
The discussion took place at the request of Fire Board Chairman Kevin Beeson (also Pine River Township supervisor), but Beeson missed the meeting. Fire Board member Don Long was also absent.
Apps remembered the time he took over as chief from Larry Parsons circa 1999.
“The outgoing chief can make recommendations,” he said. “And that’s what happened when Larry was retiring. As I recall, he talked to me about it several times, and I declined for different reasons. And finally he told me, ‘Well, Rich. I’m leaving, and if you don’t take over I guess I’m just going to walk away. And he talked with (then city manager) Denny Collison and said ‘I’m looking at retiring end of 1999 and I suggest Rich be appointed as my replacement.’ There really was not a lot of formality.”
Parsons remained on department for Apps’ first three years as chief, which was a big help, Apps said.
“My perspective at this point: I’m 68 years old and I haven’t found a way to get younger yet. I’m enjoying what I do as chief. I feel I’m fairly effective. I’m sure if you polled the firefighters privately some would say I’m an old guy, and it would be nice if I would just go away and let somebody else do their thing. I would anticipate giving this board a year’s notice if I leave by my choice. As I told Kevin (Beeson) numerous times I serve at your bidding, and at any time if you see a benefit to someone else in this role I will step aside. I will support and encourage whoever you appoint, whether I’m leaving at your request or mine, and will do whatever I can to make the transition smooth.”
Apps suggested that a job description for chief be worked up and that there be a regular review of the fire chief’s performance. “I think our taxpayers deserve that,” he said.
Apps recommended that the Fire Board schedule at least one work session to hash out what the chief’s duties should be and how to replace a retiring chief.
“The traditional fire chief position may not be the best alternative in the future,” Apps said.
Apps praised Beeson for being more interested in what the fire department does than his predecessors. “One of the things that I’ve appreciated since Kevin has been chairman is the more active role the board has had in what we’re doing than has been my history in the 30-some years I’ve been on the fire department. Aside from this meeting the board hasn’t had a lot of involvement. And that’s been a thing of Kevin’s. The board needs to be involved. Take a little more responsibility on some things but also be more aware of what the department’s doing. I appreciate that a lot. It has done a lot of good things for us department-wise.”
Apps invited board members to observe fire department training.
“We’ll give you an education of what hose testing is and why it takes all day,” he said.
To Fire Board member Carmen Bajena (also Jasper Township supervisor), Apps said, “This is your fire department. You answer to your township for the fire department. You are welcome to stop and ask questions. You make better decisions for us when you know what we do.”
No work session was scheduled to do what Apps suggested. “I think, for now, it was just an introduction of the topic and an indication that we should be planning for the next leadership transition,” said City Manager and Fire Board member Kurt Giles via email.
Apps told the board that the Alma Fire Department intends to switch to a problematic 800 Mhz radio system.
“There is significant push from their public safety director for fire departments to follow suit,” Apps said. “There are a couple problems with that. The 800 radios don’t work inside buildings very well, many buildings not at all. Our police here in St. Louis work on the 800 Mhz system, and officers tell me when they go in a school building or some of the downtown buildings they have no radio communication whatsoever.”
Apps continued: “My (portable) radio here is a $775 radio. When we go to the 800 system we’re looking at $4,000 a piece. We do not have the money to do that. The people who are very animated about going to the 800 are looking for ways to make this happen. One of the things that has been explored is leasing all the radios for police and fire countywide. And they estimate for us we could lease all our radios for $9,000 a year on a ten year contract.”
Also concerning to Apps is that Gratiot County has only one 800 Mhz tower. The 800 Mhz fans say that one tower is enough, but Apps is skeptical. “If one tower does us, why did Midland County with one tower build three more towers? And other counties have done the same.” The 800 Mhz towers run about $1.5 million a piece, Apps said. He believes the Central Dispatch Authority “would come back to users and say, ‘We need funding for more towers.’ Personally, I don’t see enough advantage to the 800 Mhz system to make it worth the additional cost.”
St. Louis firefighters have some experience with the 800 Mhz system, as these radios are in every fire vehicle, and department officers each have one. All of them are eight years old and well past warranty expiration.
Mutual aid agreement
The Fire Board (less Beeson and Long) unanimously approved a resolution saying it is in the best interest of citizens “from a safety and fiscal standpoint to enter into the interlock agreement creating the Gratiot County MABAS division.”
MABUS stands for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System and involves closer coordination between neighboring fire departments.
The St. Louis department will now try to establish a local MABAS division with other departments in Gratiot County. The departments would then do quarterly training together. “We’re going to work with the other members in the county to establish a division,” Apps said. “If we do not have four departments in our county to establish a division we would become part of a neighboring division (with departments from Saginaw, Montcalm, Midland or Isabella counties).”