FILE - Michigan fire engine

St. Joseph, Michigan, fire engine in the Blossomtime Festival Grand Floral Parade

A new report states that the 25 largest volunteer-led fire services in Michigan spend $19 million less annually than the top 25 largest full-time departments in the state.

The data, from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, show that volunteer firefighters mixed with some professionals are as effective as professionals.

Holly Wetzel, communications coordinator at the Mackinac Center, told The Center Square that government could save money without sacrificing the quality of services.

"Local governments should be embracing unique ways to save money,” Wetzel said. “When comparing volunteer-led services to full-time fire departments across the state, it is evident that volunteer forces save local governments money without sacrificing the quality of fire protection."

While some argue that paying for full-time professional firefighters is cost-effective to protect the public, the data show that volunteers tend to provide the same level of service at a lesser cost, according to Mackinac Center research.

Michigan fire departments are mostly staffed by paid firefighters. About one in four works full-time, one in seven is a volunteer, and the rest work part-time, the Mackinac Center reports.

Insurance data suggests that volunteer firefighters are, on average, just as effective as professionals.

There is no systematic difference between the two based on the Insurance Service Office’s “public protection classification,” Mackinac Center intern Chase Slasinski wrote in an Op-Ed published by the Lansing State Journal. Insurers use this metric of fire protection quality to determine property insurance rates for a given jurisdiction.

The Mackinac Center report highlighted two city fire departments as examples.

Troy's fire department serving 83,000 residents costs an average of $66 per capita for firehouse operations and is one of Michigan's most highly-ranked stations, staffed by 180 volunteers and 11 full-time firefighters, according to the report, while Kalamazoo employs 240 full-time firefighters and costs $393 per capita for its 75,000 residents. 

Troy residents pay $327 less per capita annually for the same quality of service supplied in Kalamazoo, according to ISO data.

"Meanwhile, according to the most recent estimates, the number of fires in Michigan has decreased over the past five years: There were 13 percent fewer fires in 2017 than in 2012," Slasinski wrote. "Fire-caused property damage also decreased markedly over the same period, falling by 72 percent. So the cost of fighting fires is going up even as the actual number of fires and damage declines."

In additional to salaries, fulltime fire departments often accrue significant overtime expenses, long-term pension costs and more, the Mackinac report explained.

The Mackinac Center said the overall costs of the 25 largest volunteer departments was 298 percent cheaper then the largest 25 full-time departments. 

Staff Writer

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.