Proposed emergency services contract brings focus to Eastpointe fire staffing, hiring issues

By: Brian Wells | Roseville-Eastpointe Eastsider | Published April 21, 2023

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EASTPOINTE — A proposed emergency medical and transportation contract that was recently brought before City Council was tabled to allow negotiations to be completed that would let the city’s firefighters union hire more firefighters.

Since 2012, the city has had a contract with Medstar that provided an emergency vehicle in the city limits for a period each day. The proposed new contract would have a vehicle in the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in preparation for low staffing levels in the city’s Fire Department.

The 12-month contract would cost the city slightly more than $351,000. However, not all present at the meeting were on board with the idea.

Several council members and the city’s firefighters union president voiced their concerns over the contract when it came before the City Council at its April 4 meeting.

The first point of contention was brought to light by City Councilman Harvey Curley, who asked why the city administration wanted to spend “$351,000 for one person and one vehicle.”

City Manager Mariah Walton responded by saying that the contract was to supplement the Fire Department’s low staffing.

“Our department, as of July 1, will be down an entire shift,” Walton said. “We have three shifts right now. We have low staffing. … This is not saying that we have a bad department. I think we have incredibly qualified guys.”

While the city does have a requirement that each firefighter be a paramedic as well, the city does not provide transportation services, Walton added.

“So if we have low staffing, our priority in the Fire Department needs to be our fire calls, and if we are able to move forward with this contract, Medstar will be able to assist when we are at low staffing with ensuring that our medical calls are handled by Medstar,” she said.

Council member Cardi DeMonaco raised the question of how many calls the new unit would be responding to. Eastpointe’s Michigan Professional Firefighters Union President Joe Zangara stated that the unit would be able to respond to medical calls while the Fire Department might be responding to a fire.

“The medical runs are being handled by Medstar. That’s what an ambulance is for,” he said. “We respond to every high priority run possible that we can. If we’re out on a fire, we can’t respond.”

However, Zangara said the focus should be on getting the department to proper staffing levels. While he doesn’t know of a time when staffing levels have been low enough that they haven’t been able to respond to a call, he said staffing levels are dropping “dangerously low.”

“The shortcoming is the lack of personnel. This has been brought up for well over a year. This has been predictable,” he said. “I have been sounding the alarm on this for well over a year.”

Zangara said contract negotiations were in progress, and he believes something could be put into place that would allow the department to hire enough firefighters to negate the need for the proposed emergency services contract. Even with the shortage of first responders being a national issue, he said Eastpointe’s pay and benefits are among the lowest in the county.

He added that the money that would be used for the contract would be better spent by investing in firefighters.

“If we want to attract high-quality candidates, provide the best service to our residents, at the end of the day, we’re all talking about it, our game needs to be elevated,” he said.

Zangara also added that the unit Medstar would be providing wouldn’t be able to transport residents.

“That $351,000 is for an SUV vehicle to drive around town,” he said. “That vehicle’s not transporting anybody to a hospital.”

While negotiations are occurring, Walton added that the contract isn’t the city’s first option; however, it would be a temporary measure to ensure services could be provided until the Fire Department was again at full staffing levels.

“This is not our first option of resolving the issue. This is really our last-ditch effort to ensure that we can cover services,” she said.

Ultimately, the City Council agreed to table the discussion after a motion made by Curley. The next City Council meeting was scheduled for April 25, after press time, and its agenda included time to discuss the Medstar contract.

Mayor Monique Owens noted at the April 4 meeting that a special meeting could be held if necessary.

Earlier in the April 4 meeting, City Council voted to approve the purchase of two new defibrillators for the department, replacing devices that were 10 years old. Earlier this year, council also voted to approve the purchase of a new fire engine for the department.