Amidst an already tense legal battle, which resulted in the state court of appeals ruling against the City of Potterville’s claim as the first emergency responders to Potterville Public Schools, more concerns have come to the surface after a residential fire in the city.
The Potterville Fire Department was the first responder to the fire, which took place Tuesday, Nov. 28 on Cottage Street. While en route to the fire, the Charlotte and Windsor Township fire departments were called for help, both of which arrived to the scene in a little over 10 minutes of receiving the call. Benton Township Fire Department, the closest neighboring fire department, was not called until about a half hour after the initial call, according to Eaton County Central Dispatch records.
On the surface, the delayed call to Benton Township appears suspicious. Why wasn’t Benton Township the first to be called for assistance? According to Michael Armitage, director at Eaton County Central Dispatch, as well as Wanda Darrow, city manager of the City of Potterville, the Potterville Fire Department has contracted mutual aid agreements with Charlotte and Windsor, but not Benton Township.
“It’s their call to make. We dispatch them, but it’s their jurisdiction,” said Armitage. “They made requests based on mutual agreements, it’s their decision who they call for mutual aid.”
Although Potterville and Benton Township have on different occasions aided each other in different emergencies, it is within the right of Potterville to first request assistance from their mutual aid partners. Both departments have likewise not called the other for calls in the Potterville area.
Similarly, calls to different departments are often made based on what the department can offer first responders. According to Darrow, Benton Township was called for manpower, or to relieve fire fighters who had already been working on the scene. Darrow noted that Eaton Rapids Fire Department was called for air tanks.
By the time the Potterville Fire Department arrived all of the family was out of the house, according to Darrow, but the parents both received severe burns and were later transferred to the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center in Ann Arbor.
Mutual aid agreements and varying needs considered, there’s still the question of why there is no official mutual aid agreement between the City of Potterville and Benton Township. Why was the closest neighboring fire department called after two departments that took over 10 minutes to arrive?
According to former Potterville city councilwoman Maureen Storie, it’s been four years since Potterville split from Benton Township to form its own city fire department. Storie, who was on city council at the time the decision was made, stands by the decision for budgetary reasons. She regrets the decision, however, for instances like the Nov. 28 fire, however.
“If and when something like this happens again, Benton needs to be called,” said Storie.
Storie fears that the Potterville Fire Department is not under the direction of the Fire Chief Ryan Lundquist at all, but is under the control of the city manager.
“Title or not, Wanda is the fire chief. She controls that department,” said Storie.
Storie’s insistence that the Potterville Fire Department is under the control of the city manager stems from an audio recording, in which Darrow is reportedly communicating directly to central dispatch to contact Charlotte and Windsor.
City Manager Darrow, however, insisted that the decision to call Charlotte and Windsor fell to Fire Chief Lundquist. Again, considering Potterville has contracted mutual aid agreements with Charlotte and Windsor, it’s not a stretch that those departments would be contacted.
The question is then, even with the tension of the still looming legal dispute between Potterville and Benton Township, would the departments consider writing up an official mutual aid agreement in the future?
“Ultimately we want to do what’s best for the community,” said Darrow regarding a potential mutual aid agreement with Benton. “It’s unknown at this point. It’s been at the table for discussions. We’re hoping something gets resolved.”
“We’re open to it,” said Benton Township Fire Chief Tim James. “We want to be good neighbors. It’s our hope we can have a working relationship and move forward.”