TAWAS CITY – Several attempts have been made to secure a grant toward acquiring self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units for the Tawas City Fire Department (TCFD).

“We’ve tried for the last three or four years and it’s turned out negative,” said TCFD Chief Steve Masich, during the Feb. 3 Tawas City Council meeting.

Officials weighed the options for replacing the outdated air packs, which Masich said are nearly 20 years old and no longer reliable. Following some discussion, they voted 4-2 to table the item until their next meeting.

Masich is part of the SCBA research committee which, for the past year, has been exploring the best products that would fit the needs of the TCFD.

He said the process has included hands-on instruction demonstrations, as well as wearing the equipment – which is used when entering burning structures – for several weeks during live training.

He shared three different quotes with the council, from manufacturers of such equipment, noting that the committee has chosen Douglass Safety Systems as the supplier and Interspiro to be the manufacturer for the new gear.

“And the company that we picked, I feel, will suit our needs for years to come,” Masich said.

The bids obtained for 20 new air packs and the associated equipment are: Douglass Safety Systems, Sanford, $119,965; West Shore Fire, Allendale, $139,780; and Apollo Fire Equipment Company, Romeo, $141,945.

According to Masich, things are getting to the point of no return when it comes to the SCBAs.

“These packs are getting wore out,” he said, noting that the department is down to 16 operational packs, for 24 firefighters. “We started with 22.”

Should the SCBAs be obtained through Douglass, he added that they come with a 15-year warranty. The units are also outfitted with Bluetooth technology, for talking mask to mask. Further, the packs now have a device similar to a black box on an airplane where, if something goes awry, the department can research the cause.

“The other companies didn’t have that, but they were actually higher priced,” Masich advised.

Tawas City Manager Annge Horning reminded officials that it was in the spring of 2018 when a cost-sharing possibility was raised. This was discussed as the council renegotiated the contract for fire services with Tawas and Alabaster townships.

As previously reported, in addition to serving Tawas City and having a mutual aid agreement in place with the East Tawas Fire Department, the TCFD also responds to calls in the townships of Alabaster, Sherman and Tawas.

The formula for charging for these services is adjusted annually and is based on such factors as the municipality’s population, taxable value and the number of runs/amount of usage.

The fire protection contract with Sherman Township has been in effect for about eight years and, in a decision made by the former manager of Tawas City, this money specifically goes into the fire department equipment fund.

However, in the past, Horning said Tawas City has never built equipment replacement into the contracts with Alabaster and Tawas townships.

This topic was also mentioned during a February 2018 council meeting, when Masich was given the authority to negotiate for the purchase of a custom-built, heavy rescue truck for the TCFD. This led to talks on whether such expenses should be solely the responsibility of Tawas City.

While the discussion at that time focused more on vehicles, Masich, Horning and Tawas City Mayor Ken Cook all agreed that something needs to be put in place for future purchases, when it comes to equipment replacement. 

With several pieces of aging equipment and vehicles, Masich has pointed out that this has led to costly maintenance work, in addition to safety concerns with the unreliable items.

Cook said the council needs to be looking at a capital improvement plan and budgeting several years into the future for such needs, so that the proper amount of money is being set aside.

He inquired as to whether a conversation should be had with Alabaster and Tawas townships, in terms of sharing some of the equipment costs.

He said formulas have been reconfigured over the years, but Tawas City is not including in its contracts with the other units any kind of depreciation funding amount. “Moving forward, that needs to be fixed.”

Cook also cautioned against setting a precedent of Tawas City funding 100 percent of such purchases.

“They’re paying for operational costs. They’re not paying for equipment,” Cook said of the contracts. “And I think, long term, that’s definitely a mistake.”

Consensus was given by officials that the TCFD had an immediate need at that point for the medical truck, and timing was a factor. However, they intended to figure out how such acquisitions will be handled in the future.

As for the SCBAs, Horning said officials in Tawas and Alabaster townships were informed that the TCFD was applying for an air pack grant again in 2018, and were hopeful to get it.

“So, instead of building in money into the contract then, everybody at the table agreed that if we didn’t get the grant, that we would in turn go to the township boards and ask them to do a cost-sharing for the air packs,” she explained at the latest council meeting. Therefore, she and Masich did just that at the township board meetings this past December.

Horning said the boards had some follow-up requests for information from Tawas City, but she is hoping the two municipalities will help share in the cost to offset the price for Tawas City.

“Is it a certain percentage from them?” asked Councilwoman Jill VanDriessche.

“We’re asking them to share according to the formula that we have for the coverage,” Horning said, noting that this would be based on what that percentage is.

She also said that a $5,000 USG Foundation grant was awarded to the TCFD in December 2019, and these funds have been earmarked toward the purchase of new air packs, as well.

Councilman Jon Studley sought clarification from Horning, asking whether the townships were in agreement that if the equipment was needed, they would be willing to help.

Horning reiterated that the hope was a grant would be awarded for the purchase. She said they didn’t want to get into a situation where the money was collected  from the townships, and then Tawas City had to turn around and give it back because they got the grant. “So we tried to be optimistic but, obviously we didn’t get the grant. But yes, everybody at the table was in agreement.”

She explained that this wasn’t the full township boards, but the supervisors with whom staff met.

“I know that the boards have discussed it, and they did agree to contribute,” she went on, adding that she doesn’t know that a set dollar amount was made, and that more information has been requested from Tawas City.

“The only question that I have is, if we were to approve this, do you think there’s any chance they would say that, since you purchased it, we’re not going to do anything?” Studley asked.

He said there is no question that the SCBAs are needed, but this is his only concern if the purchase was approved that night.

“There is a possibility that can happen,” Horning said. “I can’t control when they give us an answer or if they write us a check but, you’re absolutely right, we need to purchase these. We have to move forward; they’re failing the inspections.”

Cook asked if the council should send a letter to the townships, requesting a decision, after which Tawas City officials could discuss the results at their next meeting.

Horning answered that this can be done.

Regardless of the decision from the other municipalities, “It doesn’t alleviate or eliminate the fact that we still need them,” Councilman Mike Russo stressed.

“It doesn’t change the need,” agreed Horning.

Studley then asked where the money would be pulled from, should the council approve the purchase without the support of the other townships.

Horning said it would come from the fire equipment fund, which Cook noted is already going to be tapped pretty hard because of the new fire truck purchase.

As reported, officials voted last June to award a bid to Halt Fire and Pierce Manufacturing, and to go with PNC Equipment Finance for a 10-year payment plan for a new fire truck.

The first payment on the Pierce brand Saber pumper truck – which costs well over a half-million dollars – is due this July, and has been budgeted to be taken out of the fire equipment fund.

“With that, there’s still enough in there to cover these air packs,” Horning said. “But the next fire truck payment, then, is going to come from the general fund. One way or the other, the general fund is going to be contributing.”

“Now, to a certain degree, I have some heartache playing Russian roulette with PPE – personal protective equipment,” Russo said.

“I think that that, in some regards, trumps a lot of other things that happen in this community,” he continued, whether this be municipal development or other projects/needs.

Russo remarked that hindsight is 20/20, but he would hate to look back at a fire call and know that somebody got hurt because the council hemmed and hawed on this.

The motion by Cook to hold off on a decision that night passed in a 4-2 vote, with Russo and Kane Kelly opposed. Absent was Mayor Pro Tem Brian McMurray.