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Harsens Island residents worry about emergency response time after firehouse closes in Clay Township

Firefighters from mainland must take ferry to Harsens Island

CLAY TOWNSHIP, Mich. – When a Metro Detroit community lost its grant money and had to shut down one of its two firehouses, it raised major concerns for residents who live on an island.

One of the firehouses in Clay Township is on Harsens Island, and without it, first responders in emergency vehicles will have to board a ferry boat and catch a ride to reach emergencies on the island.

The Local 4 Defenders got a call from a firefighter who was worried about the safety of residents on Harsens Island. He agreed to talk about the issue as long as his identity was concealed.

When township officials were questioned, they confirmed the island firehouse is now empty, saying they were forced to choose to man either the mainland station or the island station due to a limited budget.

The only way on or off Harsens Island is by ferry, and that's the way the 1,000-plus residents on the island like it. They said island life is the good life until there's an emergency.

During a fire, every second can be a matter of life or death, and survival can depend on how quickly first responders can get to the scene. In the past, that wasn't a problem for Clay Township firefighters because there were trucks stationed on the island and the mainland.

"The only way you can get to it is by ferry," the firefighter said. "That creates a delay."

He said firetrucks and firefighters having to wait to cross by ferry is a recipe for disaster, and he insists that since the township's new chief arrived, several safety concerns have come up.

"We'll get the coverage that we need to have when somebody gets hurt," he said. "Either one of us, or a citizen."

The chief is the only full-time employee. The rest of Clay Township's firefighters are volunteers who only get paid $10 per hour, and only when there's a fire to respond to.

The Clay Township supervisor admits that he doesn't have certified firefighters lining up to work.

"The staffing issue is not a Harsens Island- or Clay Township-specific problem," Clay Township Supervisor Artie Bryson said. "It's a countywide problem. It's a statewide problem."

The township lost a grant that was paying for the island to be staffed.

"It's called a safer grant that actually paid for seven full-time firefighters, and those seven actually staffed the mainland and the island for two years," Bryson said. "That grant ran out."

Clay Township Fire Chief George Rose said the budget only allows for one fire station to be manned, and the mainland takes priority. If there's a fire on the island, officials immediately notify the ferry operator.

"Radio the Harsens Island ferry for them to standby, and they come across right away and (standby at the mainland), and then we respond to cross," Rose said.

Officials insist they're doing the best they can with the money they have.

"In the event there is a call on the island and we don't have that staffed, our fire department, our rigs are on that island within about five to six minutes of that call," Rose said.

Residents on the island said they understand the budget concerns and think the fire department does a great job, considering the situation. But they're worried about the island firehouse being empty in a life-or-death situation.

"Well, that still has to come across the ferry, and that's not soon enough," Harsens Island resident Reeda Szymanski said. "It's just not."

Township officials said they feel like they must do better, so they're slowly improving and replacing gear and equipment. But they don't have the money to staff both firehouses.

Ferry operators said they will stop all passenger traffic any time they're alerted to an emergency to make sure they can ferry emergency vehicles to the island as fast as possible.

The township's long-term plan is to try to raise money through a bond that will support reopening the island firehouse. That will be up to voters, and there are many more taxpayers on the mainland than on the island. Officials said they hope residents will support the plan.