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The Press Newspaper

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The new fire chief for the Harris-Elmore Volunteer Fire Department says there’s a good chance the department may seek a new levy in the future to offset department needs.

Jim Wilburn, a 25-year veteran of the western Ottawa County department, became chief April 1. The former fire department first captain was chosen from a group of four in-house candidates, according to the Harris Township trustees’ meeting minutes.

Wilburn, 50, replaces Mike Murray, who stepped down March 31. Murray is battling an aggressive prostate cancer and informed trustees of his resignation date in mid-February, allowing them enough time to find a replacement, records show.

Wilburn’s daytime job is an inspector for the Ottawa County Sanitary Engineer’s office. However, he has also been a member of the Ottawa County Fire Investigative Unit since 1995 and currently serves as safety inspector for the township.

“I think that’s just a few things that worked on them appointing me,” said Wilburn, who comes from a family dedicated to fire department service. His father, Clarence, was fire department chief for years, retiring in 1980. His brother, Clarence, was a long-time member of the Lake Township Fire Department.

Wilburn said his goal list is simple.

“My goals are to get everybody on the same page,” he said, adding he is mainly looking at “operations and the camaraderie of the membership.”

And ultimately, “We can be better and become more efficient,” Wilburn said.

His evaluation in his first few months of leadership will focus on a critical review of department needs, specifically a way to address its aging fleet of vehicles.

“Our newest truck is a 2001. That is our first truck out on the scene. The second truck out is a 1981. Obviously, we need some equipment updated,” he said.

Fire department and EMS division expenses cost about $235,000 in 2012, according to Harris Township Fiscal Officer David Robenstine. An emergency services levy passed in November 2009 generates about $102,000 annually, he said. The remainder of budget revenue came from soft billing ($95,000) and service contracts with Benton and Washington townships ($21,000). The township general fund kicked in another $18,000.

This budget covers normal operating expenses, which does not include equipment expansion, Robenstine said.  “And year to year it differs. You have to think about fuel. And then there are repairs, which are a major factor. Those things are really volatile from year to year.”

All things considered, “We may have to go after a continuous operating levy for the fire and EMS,” Wilburn said.

A committed recruiting plan is also on Wilburn’s mind. The Harris-Elmore department currently has a roster of 33 firefighters, of which 28 are active. The EMS division has room for up to 16 positions.  To date, there are nine filled.

“I plan to get a recruiting plan in place,” Wilburn said.

His long-term goal is to have a waiting list in place to help fill positions as others leave.

The current state of the EMS division plays another part in the need for additional funds, the chief said.

“We have to face the fact that the EMS will have to one-day go to 24-hour service, seven days a week,” he explained.

At present, there is a paramedic or advanced emergency medical technician staffing the Rice Street station from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

But, Wilburn admits, daytime help is hard to come by.

At the first of the year, the trustees agreed to cover the costs of an additional seven days of service to help out the EMS division. That means an additional $17,000 dedicated to EMS coverage, Robenstine said.

But there has to be a long serious review of the cost and benefits of going to 24-hour service, the new chief said.  “We can only work 192 hours per month before we lose our volunteer status.”

Robenstine noted the dedication of volunteers has enabled the fire and EMS departments to provide a valuable service with reasonable costs.

“The Harris-Elmore Fire Department has been able to run so efficiently because of the graciousness of its volunteers,” he said. And by graciousness, the clerk explained, he means the many hours of time they have given up to improve service that hasn’t cost the township anything monetarily.

“But the availability and capability of people able to do this is diminishing,” Robenstine said. “You can’t continue this way. It’s very challenging.”

In the mean time, Wilburn said he will turn attention to his staff and its needs.

One of the first things to be addressed is the purchase of Class A uniforms.

“One thing I am pushing is the purchase of Class A uniforms,” Wilburn said. “We have never had any Class A uniforms and when we try to go pay our respects to others or participate in events we do our best.”

The members have agreed to use their first half’s pay toward the purchase, he said.

Each member receives a $500 stipend annually, which is paid in two payments, according to Robenstine.

The new attire will be the first step in putting department members on the road to an informal publicity campaign, Wilburn said.

“I want to see our department better represented in the community,” he said. “And that means bringing its members to the forefront. Take the Memorial Day parade, we have never marched in it. I want to march in it this year. We need to be seen in the community in events that we haven’t been seen at before.”

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