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Hazel Park

January 16, 2013

New chief in charge of Hazel Park Fire Department

Service consolidation will continue to be considered

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

HAZEL PARK — The Hazel Park Fire Department is under new management, starting this month.

Mark Karschnia is settling in as the new fire chief in town, following the retirement of the previous fire chief, Ray DeWalt, at the end of last year. Karschnia was chief effective Jan. 2, his first day back to work after the holidays.

Previously, Karschnia was fire captain. His entire fireman career has been with the HPFD, although prior to that, he did two years of private EMS in Macomb County.

He came on board as a firefighter in November 1993. These last couple of years have been a series of promotions for Karschnia: lieutenant in April 2011 and fire captain the following June. And now, he has been elevated to the department’s top rank.

“As far as running the department, I hope I will continue to be fair with the guys,” Karschnia said. “I just want to be able to make the right decisions, and the bottom line is, I want to make sure all of my guys go home safe in the morning. Stuff will happen — it’s a dangerous job — but I want to make sure all of my guys go home safe.

“As far as what lies ahead,” he continued, “it’s hard to say if some type of consolidation or sharing of services is in the cards.”

He noted the department already runs so efficiently that the idea wasn’t deemed advisable in the past. That being said, “The bottom line is, we’ll hopefully continue to maintain the same level of services, even in these tough economic times,” Karschnia said.

The new chief was originally inspired to be a firefighter by his grandfather, who served with the Detroit Fire Department in the ’40s and ’50s. While he and his grandfather never talked about it much, knowing what he did still planted the seed in Karschnia’s head — a seed that would later blossom into an interest in firefighting.

“Public safety is definitely a calling,” Karschnia said, acknowledging the fact not many people want to put themselves in peril. “You’ve either got it or you don’t.”

He said his men are the department’s greatest assets, and he praised the work of the previous chief, DeWalt.

“I had the privilege to work with Ray when he was a fireman also, working with him as he went through the ranks,” Karschnia said. “He was always instructional, a fine leader as chief. He was fair with everyone, I think, and he achieved great things for the department.”

Among DeWalt’s accomplishments were consistent staffing levels — in his whole time as chief, there was only one layoff in 2010, and that person was brought back one month later, thanks to a SAFER grant DeWalt helped secure. The SAFER grant retained three firefighter positions, in all.

Speaking of grants, DeWalt was instrumental in many of them: three grants from 2006 through 2008 replaced all of the department’s breathing apparatus equipment, including the air compressor, and added new personnel protection equipment, including new helmets and gear. One of the grants helped the department acquire a thermal-imaging camera, and another paid for most of a new frontline pumper vehicle.

And prior to all of that, DeWalt oversaw the city’s transition from basic life-support services to advanced life-support services in 1998, following voter approval of ALS.

“It was a scheduling nightmare for the guys and their families, at the time — an adjustment for them — but they all did great,” DeWalt said.

DeWalt said one challenge during the last few years has been cutbacks in the city budget, requiring concessions from firefighters, as calls for service remain high, despite a downward trend in the city’s population, leaving the department feeling strained.

“So one challenge has been trying to keep morale high,” DeWalt said. “We have good guys who have learned to do more with less. We go to fires with fewer guys than most departments in the area, yet they’ve always done a good job.”

The former chief said he has complete faith in his successor.

“Mark knows how to use the tools he has available to him,” DeWalt said. “That’s something I learned a long time ago, using the other captains and lieutenants. The whole department should do well under Mark because he knows how to use them, and he has good people to utilize.

“Mark’s a good, personable person, too,” DeWalt added. “He’ll talk to anyone in the community, at the station. He’ll be open in his communication, in every aspect.”

While DeWalt is looking forward to figuring out what he’ll do next, part of him will miss the fire department.

“It’s like I have two families, my blood-related family and these guys,” DeWalt said of the HPFD. “They’re just great. It’s been a great run for me, and I wish them the best. These are tough times right now, but these guys are tougher and will get through it.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.