Hampered by an aging, cramped building in the far west of the township and staffing issues facing fire departments across the country, Blair Township Emergency Services is getting creative: they seek voter approval this summer to tie a new centrally located facility and partner with the United States. Department of Defense on a program that places military firefighters among local personnel on the federal government payroll.
Blair Township Emergency Services will apply in the Aug. 2 ballot for a 20-year, $6.4 million bond to build a new facility on property just south of Chums Corner near the Blair Elementary School. Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) donated 130 acres of property to the township last fall — with the blessing of the Oleson family, who originally donated the land to TCAPS — to be used for a new building emergency services, as well as trails, public washrooms and recreational facilities. The construction bond will be set at 0.9870 mills, which is equivalent to $98 per year for a house with a assessed value of $100,000.
The new 14,000 square foot facility will replace the current Blair Township Emergency Services Building, which was built in the 1970s and is located on County Road 633 in Grawn, at the western end of the boundaries of the district. As Blair Township’s population has grown and spread, emergency services have faced increasing challenges responding to service calls within the department’s targeted six-minute timeframe, according to the director of services. emergency, Eric Somel. “With this new centralized location, the number of residents outside the six-minute window will be reduced by 60%,” he says.
Somsel says his department hasn’t increased its staff since 2006, despite a steady increase in call volumes. In 2014, the department responded to 1,954 calls; by 2021, that number had grown to 2,182 calls. “We’re at the point where we need to hire more staff, but we don’t have room for them,” says Somsel. “We’re in a building designed for a 100% volunteer-run fire station, and we’ve surpassed it. We are designing the new station to allow for future growth for many years to come. Blair Township Emergency Services now has 13 full-time employees, including three people who work 24/7, along with another 12 part-time employees, according to Somsel.
Blair Township Supervisor Nicole Blonshine says that while township voters approved an advanced survival mile (ALS) in 1996, the township never requested an installation or construction mile. She and Somsel hope residents will see the need for a new building, pointing to strong local support for the department. “This emergency service is highly respected in this community,” says Blonshine. “It’s not just paramedic firefighters. They are men and women who love and serve their community. We have never asked for a mileage for a building. With the growth and development that has occurred in the township, it is quite evident that the need speaks for itself. The Township of Blair will hold open houses on June 26 (1-4 p.m.), July 21 (5-8 p.m.) and July 24 (1-4 p.m.) at the current Emergency Services building to review the proposed obligation with residents.
Meanwhile, Blair Township Emergency Services is exploring a unique solution to staffing issues – a recurring obstacle in the industry. The township was recently approved as a partner site for the U.S. Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which places service members who are nearing the end of active duty in training roles with organizations and companies across the country. . The goal of the program is to help service members transition to a civilian career upon completion of their service.
In May, 23-year-old Chase Groh, a native of Rockford, Mich., who joined the Air Force in 2016, arrived at Blair Township Emergency Services after being approved for placement in the northern Michigan via SkillBridge. Groh, who was stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and served overseas at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, has served in the military as a firefighter, fire inspector and EMT. He will put those skills to good use for Blair Township over the next five months, working side-by-side with local emergency service personnel and training in various aspects of service operations. He will continue to receive full military pay and benefits while working for Blair Township, completing his final 180 days of service in Northern Michigan before being discharged. From there, Groh plans to apply to become a full-time employee of Blair Township Emergency Services.
“The intent of the program is to turn it into a position within the company or organization you work with,” Groh says. “It’s not a binding contract on my part, or on the side of the township, but that is the intent.” Somsel adds: “The biggest part for Blair Township is that our busiest months are in the summer. (Groh) comes to us as a fully certified firefighter and EMT, so it’s like having an extra staff member during our busy months – but paid for by the Department of Defense. Somsel jokes that the program is “essentially a five-month job interview process,” with the goal of hiring Groh at the end if the training period is successful for both parties.
While Groh represents Blair Township’s first experience with the SkillBridge program, Somsel does not anticipate it will be the last. “Since we were vetted (with the MoD) we’ve had a few more investigations,” he says. Somsel expects a second program participant to be placed with emergency services before the end of this year.
Pictured: left, rendering of the new Blair Township Emergency Services Building; right, Chase Groh