The 1800s brought growth not only to the State of Michigan but to the Grand Traverse Region. Grand Traverse County was incorporated in 1851 and the City of Traverse City incorporated in 1891. This once sleepy area grew from a lumber town to a major center of commerce. Today the Grand Traverse Region is a mix of tourism, service sector jobs, light industrial and retirement homes. Many fire brigades and fire departments sprung up to meet the growth of the region and the City of Traverse City established a fire department near the turn of the century. As the County grew, villages and towns established fire departments. As with many other counties, Grand Traverse County Government accepted responsibility for fire protection. With the passing of PA 33 of 1951, Michigan Legislature did not indicate nor direct any obligation or responsibility of a county for the operation of a Fire Department. It did spell out the method of establishing Fire Protection Special Assessment Districts for Townships.
In October of 1970, Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners recommended that Grand Traverse Township Association take over the full responsibility of management and financing of the fire department. A new resolution was passed that read: “It is the intent of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners to provide adequate and efficient fire and emergency protection service and facilities for the protection of the life and the property of all residents of Grand Traverse County, wherever such protection is not otherwise provided for by city, township or villages.” The then Sheriff of Grand Traverse County, Richard Weiler, was named County Fire Chief. Station locations were named, mainly in the surrounding villages. A station was also located in the County Jail. Funding for the fire departments came from the township and villages general funds. This arrangement worked for nearly ten more years. The townships of Acme, East Bay and Garfield were served by the jail-based truck as well as small township departments. Rapid growth of these three townships required a change as the existing arrangements were not able to effectively protect life and property. Visionaries such as Richard Weiler, Don Vezina, Gordy Brogden, Wayne Hanna, Roy Strait and others, along with the three supervisors Lee Wilson, Jim Maitland and George Shimek, saw the need for change. These three townships had similar needs and believed it was in their best interest to join in providing the services and equipment necessary to provide fire protections to their citizens.
On October 15, 1980, Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department was created. A budget based funding formula was established, and Wayne Hanna was named Fire Chief. Metro Fire Department flourished and prospered under this new arrangement. Metro remains a unique fire department in this State and consists of three former township fire departments operating as one department. As Chief Hanna stated, “there is no yours or mine; just one department”.
From the mid-1990s until early 2000s, Metro Fire Department continued to grow. In 2004, Metro had 85 volunteers, Fire Chief, Wayne Hanna; Deputy Chief, Pat Parker; Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal, Brad Schnaidt; 3 Battalion Chiefs, a Secretary and 3 Fire Prevention Inspectors. Metro shared 1 Fire Prevention Public Education Officer with Rural Fire Department. Training for all personnel was provided by the department in the areas of firefighting and medical response. As Assistant Chief/Fire Marshall, Brad Schnaidt brought focus to building codes, brought the first fire prevention ordinance, and developed inspection and fire investigation functions. In 2004, Pat Parker came on board with Metro full-time and brought business acumen from his experience with Parker Motor Freight with him to the department as Deputy Chief.
On December 31, 2005, Chief Wayne Hanna retired, and Deputy Chief Pat Parker was promoted to Fire Chief the following day. Chief Parker’s focus was to further unify the department and transition from a volunteer organization to a combination of full-time firefighters and volunteer firefighters. Terry Flynn, Assistant Fire Chief/Operations, had the primary objective to improve training and mission readiness with a focus on operations of the department. The first two full-time firefighters were hired in 2007. An industrial building was remodeled into Fire Station 1 on the border of East Bay and Garfield Townships in 2007. This Station became the Central Station and housed the ladder truck and other specialty equipment.
On September 11, 2008, Grand Traverse Metro Emergency Services Authority was formed during Garfield Township’s bi-monthly meeting where the board held a public hearing on whether or not to adopt the new articles of incorporation. After a few spoke in favor of the Act 57 authority, the motion passed unanimously. Prior to that fateful Garfield Township meeting, both Acme Township and East Bay Township had held similar public hearings that also passed unanimously. This could not have been accomplished without the direction of Wayne Kladder and Frank Zarafonitis from Acme Township, Glen Lile and Beth Friend from East Bay Township, and Lee Wilson and Joe McManus from Garfield Township. The three townships of Acme, East Bay, and Garfield believed in the concept of a regionalization and the economies of scale by sharing resources. Metro’s board grew from three to six members with two elected officials from each township serving. A uniform millage rate came into existence for all three townships. A business model was created that could incorporate all modes of emergency services from police to EMS.
Also in 2009, GTMESA services upgraded from a Medical First Responder level to a Basic Life Support level, which allowed our members to provide a higher degree of medical attention to the community. Fitness for duty was established as an integral part of GTMESA’s mission and all employees were encouraged to participate in fitness on and off duty. Fitness for duty became policy in 2010 to promote a lifestyle that employees were expected to continue. All suppression employees were mandated to workout 1 hour a day while on duty in the station’s workout room. GTMESA’s absolute goal to never have a line of duty death contributed to an employee’s poor health and fitness. Our goal: Omnis Cedo Domus—Everyone Goes Home!
In 2012, GTMESA completed an Insurance Services Office (ISO) evaluation with a new and improved rating of 5 due to significant improvements put in place since the last Property Protection Classification (PPC) evaluation. The previous evaluation was conducted in 2003 and resulted with a rating of 6. With the improvements in training, station staffing, the purchase of additional apparatus and the building of two additional fire stations, it was enough to warrant an improvement of the ISO PPC grade. Also, at the suggestion of the Fire Board, GTMESA rolled out a new program to bring in additional revenue to recover costs associated with certain incidents which are allowed by law. These incidents where costs are recoverable include vehicle crashes, structure fires, vehicle fires, hazardous material releases and calls to down electrical wires. This program is one reason that GTMESA was able to keep the fire tax millage the same for 2013. The Fire Prevention Bureau came under new leadership with the promotion of Brian Belcher to Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal. New ways to impact our residential properties were developed. Data showed that most of our fires occurred in single and multi-family properties. We addressed this problem through our Safe Neighborhoods door- to- door smoke alarm campaign to single family homes, and by reassigning Fire Inspectors to inspect multi-family housing complexes; including the individual apartments. Occupants of these structures are subject to the actions of their neighbors where many lives are at risk should a fire occur as well as the responsibility of the landlords to maintain safe living situations. The impact of inspecting these occupancies reduced the likelihood of fire and/or injury to a large percentage of our population.
After more than a decade of limited radio communication, the voters of Grand Traverse County approved a 911 surcharge July 1, 2015. With this surcharge, the County agreed to update all emergency responders to the State’s Michigan Public Safety Communications System. This system transitioned to an 800 MHz digital trunked radio that greatly improved the interoperability of all first responders.
Sadly, on September 11, 2017, Retired Chief Wayne Hanna joined his Heavenly Father with open arms after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August. Chief Hanna gave over 50 years to the fire service and he believed that “Faith, Family, Firehouse” were the priorities to life and this has continued to be a mantra that many firefighters live by. As GTMESA continued to grow, staffing became an issue as the department saw a loss of its part-time workforce. As the decline in part-time staffing increased, GTMESA was required to increase full-time staffing to manage the amount of emergency incidents adequately and safely across our community. From hiring our first suppression firefighters in 2007, full-time staff increased to 22 firefighters in 2017.
GTMESA saw another improvement in its ISO classification in 2019 when the rating went from a 5 to a 3 in the areas that fire hydrants were present and went from a 6 to a 5 in the areas that fire hydrants are not present. The work required to improve this score took considerable time and effort from all areas of GTMESA staff. The work paid off with a better score which may result in lower insurance cost for some of our residents and business owners.
During 2020, full-time suppression members joined the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) forming Grand Traverse Metro Fire Fighters Local 5288. 2021 staffing levels increased to include a full-time Fire Chief, an Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal, an Assistant Fire Chief/Operations, a full-time Plans Reviewer/Inspector, 2 full-time Fire Inspector/Investigators, 22 full-time suppression staff, 17 part-time suppression staff, multiple Probationary Candidates, a full-time Human Resources Manager, a full-time Administrative Assistant, and part-time Accountant. At the end of 2020, renovations began on Station 11. Station 11, located on Albany off Veterans Drive in Garfield township, was opened in 1978 and the renovations carried into 2021.
CALL VOLUME OVER THE YEARS: In 1980, the Rural and Metro departments responded to 900 incidents. In 2004, the Metro Fire Department alone responded to 2,141 incidents. Call volume in 2011 was just under 4,000. In 2012, call volume reached 4,260. The call volume in 2014 grew to 4,622. In 2018, GTMESA boasted 4,912 in call volume. In 2020, GTMESA responded to over 5,000 calls (5,010) despite a dramatic decrease in calls due to COVID-19.