Mutual fire aid agreement between township and city becomes hot topic

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- After a sometimes contentious debate, the Niles Township Board of Trustees on Tuesday narrowly voted to approve an automatic mutual aid agreement between its fire department and the City of Niles Fire Department.
Niles Township Fire Chief Craig Lear last year issued an executive order to his department's command firefighters that they immediately call for mutual aid from the city's fire department anytime they are called to a structure fire.
Lear said, despite his executive order, he wanted board approval to enter into the agreement to solidify it with the city.
Apparently, some in the township's fire department aren't happy with the move because they think it will undermine the department's need for volunteers.
Niles Township's Department does employ a very limited number of full-time, paid firefighters, but mainly is a volunteer fire department. However, those "volunteers" are paid for their firefighting services.
Lear said the automatic mutual aid agreement does not detract from the importance of the department's volunteers.
However, Lear said the issue is one of saving lives and saving homes.
Because the city is located in the center of Niles Township, Lear said often times, the city's fire engines and personnel could arrive at the scene much more quickly than township engines and personnel.
In fact, the city's new fire station, currently under construction, is located only several blocks from Oak Manor, which is one of the township's most populated subdivisions.
Lear said the agreement covers only structure fires, which occur only about 25 to 30 times during a year.
However, trustees Richard Cooper, Dick Noble and Jim Ringler were very vocal in their opposition to the agreement.
Ringler said Lear should have come to the board before Tuesday night if he is having a problem with volunteers responding to fire calls.
Lear said he had pointed out a number of times, at meetings and in writing, to Ringler and others on the board that his department needs more manpower.
And, Lear said the issue is not one of the number of volunteers in total who respond to a fire call, but rather, when they get there.
He and other Niles Township firefighters pointed out most of its volunteers are at work if a structure fire breaks out during the daytime.
The township already has automatic mutual aid agreements in place with Clay Township and Howard Township's fire departments, which cover fires in areas in those townships and Niles Townships.
Cooper, who is a long-time volunteer firefighter, said he is in favor of the agreement, but not in favor of "a 10-page plan" put together by Lear and Larry Lamb, Niles city fire chief.
Lamb and Lear said that plan is a vision for future operations and not tied to the one-page automatic mutual aid agreement before the board Tuesday night.
Noble said he asked Lear to seek a special board meeting to discuss the issue and seemed angry that the issue had come up as part of a regularly-scheduled board meeting.
Kevin Tonkin, Niles Township trustee who is chairman of the township's public safety committee, said that committee had discussed the issue several times and he had brought it before the full board for discussion.
Niles Township Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt said, "Are you telling us the mutual aid agreement we've had in place for years is not effective?"
Lear said no, "that's not what I'm saying at all. This is simply taking a proactive stance, rather than a reactive one."
Again, he told the board he was seeking their support on the agreement.
Ringler again said Lear needs to document volunteer response to fire calls.
Lear said he knows of no way, when a firefighter should be busy fighting a fire, to document what volunteer responds and at exactly what time they arrive.
During the debate, it was clear some board members were angry with Lear over issues not apparent or related to the automatic mutual aid agreement.
Ringler later claimed Lear had violated board policy on another issue by purchasing radios without board approval.
Tonkin said it was clear some board members were using the issue as "a political football."
Doug Wise, a long-time Niles Township volunteer and a retired full-time firefighter who was in the audience at Tuesday night's meeting, said the automatic mutual aid agreement is needed "to protect our own. It's a matter of firefighter safety. It's just having that additional help initially that's so important -- having that help in the fire five minutes. If you've got that help, and know you're going to have it, you can make better decisions faster."
He said the agreement is "a win-win situation."
Township Supervisor Bill Myers, Durm-Hiatt, Tonkin and Trustee Robert Jones voted in favor of the agreement.
Ringler, Noble and Cooper voted against it.
Immediately following the vote, the board set a date to evaulate the job performance of Lear. That closed session has been set for Monday, Jan. 26, at 4 p.m. at the township hall.

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