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By Scott Sullivan


Boots on the Ground

Greek myth holds the titan Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind: a boon in at least two ways:

Physically, our ability to use fire separated us from other animals, whose claws, teeth, superior strength, etc., made us easy prey for them.

Metaphorically, fire gave us the light of knowledge and self awareness. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling shows God creating Adam by the two touching fingers, a spark between them.

Roam (or Rome) back to Greece: Zeus punished Prometheus, the story goes, by chaining him to a rock, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle. Challenge my omnipotence? Take that, buddy!

Now to Saugatuck-Douglas, where the boon and bane of what fire bestows can be seen in tensions between Saugatuck Township and the Saugatuck Township Fire District. Some township officials want to shift fire code enforcement duties for small dwellings from the district’s professionals to the township building inspector, in the wake of some builders complaining the district is doing so over-zealously.

Fire Chief Greg Janik objects. So do other firefighters, who deal firsthand with out-of-control blazes. Too often they see loss of victims’ lives, homes, irreplaceable heirlooms and human memories.

I have been on the scenes to document with pictures their heroics in face of heartbreak—risking their own lives in the process. And not just at blazes. Car wrecks, with injured occupants pinned inside shattered glass and steel cages. At post-storm carnage. I missed the time they were called on to round up horses, but I heard it was interesting. Who knows what tomorrow or fate may bring?

With police and paramedics, they respond in times of our greatest need. They are the ones with boots on the ground, men and women bound by a higher mission.

No one is more conscientious or works harder than Chief Janik. He has earned the esteem of peers all across West Michigan. Greg was upset, rightly, about my story two weeks ago detailing some (not all) builders’ complaints without having first heard the fire district’s side of it. The story also described at least one builders’ post-fire gratitude for the district imposing those safety standards.

You can never tell all a story; there are space and deadline constraints. But the one in question was rushed out, based on what I know now. In fire terms, it was half-baked. I apologized to Greg and would like to express that to every firefighter.

Chances are—and let’s hope—our homes never do catch fire. Given that good fortune, we may not understand the passion for prevention fire inspectors feel.

Building your dream home? Maybe you, too, are passionate and don’t like outside officials dictating what you can and cannot do with your property. Perhaps costs meeting their access or water requirements are prohibitive.

Builders are putting their own means towards these endeavors. They care too. The township board has to listen to—and represent—all constituents.

The township also wants to more clearly define the types of costs the fire district can recover from parties requiring emergency response services. As with safety inspections, Janik has been proactive pursuing these costs since becoming chief in 2013. Both are positive steps, but a change from past years that requires adjustments be made by others.

I am not convinced transferring enforcement from fire professionals to the building inspector—who also has expertise, but less so in the specifics of fire safety—is the best solution. I believe the district—which includes Douglas and Saugatuck cities—would benefit from a more-solid appeals process whereby builders, should they take issue with a fire inspectors’ code reading, or parties billed what they think are excessive recovery costs, could seek mediation before an impartial panel.

Where would we find people qualified to serve on said panel? How, in a small community, would we reimburse their time and training? Like most free advice no one asks for, mine is worth it—but we can’t be the only community where such issues arise. How do others handle them?

We need more light, less heat, brought to these fire deliberations. If I have erred and poured fuel on the current contentiousness, I apologize. We all want safe buildings and the best fire protection possible. Let’s respect each others’ passions and work towards the greater good here.

There may be a disagreement—common in public affairs—but not disrespect between township and district leaders. The township joined Douglas May 3 unanimously approving the fire district’s 2017-18 budget request for a tax hike from 1.7 to 2.0 mills to fund capital improvements. How popular is it, politically, to raise taxes?

Back to my misreading of arcane myths. Pity not Prometheus; it’s the eagle who has to eat liver each day. Don’t mess with Zeus, I say.