Firefighter resignation raises staffing concerns

FLINT TWP. — One of two staff resignations submitted to the township board last week prompted a discussion about improving retention and morale.

The board accepted letters of resignation from Patricia Watson, a communications operator in the police department and Christa Shulters, an on-call firefighter.

Watson indicated she was leaving to accept a job out of state.

But Shulters letter cited a list of grievances including safety, morale, personnel sanctions and not enough work hours to meet the expense of paying union dues.

Shulters said “a majority” of Flint Township on-call firefighters feel their safety is threatened by managerial decisions.

“Negative reports and suspensions given out to firefighters are currently very high which further threatens the safety of the firefighter unit as we lose integral members of our team,” she said.

“Finally, the mood of the department has changed its tenor so that joining trainings and other engagements is rarely enlightening or enjoyable,” she said.

Trustee Frank Kasle expressed concern about staffing levels in light of the number of firefighters who have quit in the past two years.

Kasle said he was not trying to blame Fire Chief John Ringwelski or anyone else for ongoing morale and retention grievances but strongly encouraged remedial strategies..

“Maybe we need a program for our on-call firefighters that will try to increase the efficiency, morale and working conditions so that they stay,” Kasle said.

Asked to respond to Shulters’ allegations, Ringwelski said he is required by law to enforce safety rules, including trainings required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“I am asking people to do what is required. If an individual does not attend state-mandated trainings, they are not allowed to go to a fire,” he said, adding his belief that enforcing policies has improved safety since he became fire chief.

“ I speak with OSHA on a regular basis and they are here frequently,” he said. “They agree with what I am doing.”

Many of those who have left the department were “low-number” responders, he said.

Staffing is lower than it was three years ago but the department still has about 30 on-call firefighters which is enough to handle calls, he said.

Based on his conversations with other fire chiefs, being understaffed is a problem nationwide, he said, .

Part-time and volunteer retention is difficult because now because many people don’t have the time to commit.

The fire department accepts applications but some applicants can’t pass the background check, have poor driving records, warrants or other issues.

“As far at the numbers go, we could clearly use more,” Ringwelski said.

“We do an excellent job and are looked at by other departments for our skill,” he said. “We do have enough people show up at our scenes.”

The department also has the advantage of full-time staff members who don’t have to waste time going to the station to pick up the truck, as some volunteer departments do.

Township Supervisor Karyn Miller said a meeting was being set up to discuss attracting and retaining more firefighters.

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