It is customary for general purpose units of governments—cities, villages, townships and counties—to take some level of responsibility for the health, safety and general welfare of residents other persons within their jurisdictions. How this responsibility is addressed is a governmental policy decision, meaning that local governments have broad discretion to decide what they will do, how much, and for whom. Public safety in some communities means that personnel are cross-trained to perform law enforcement, fire suppression and emergency medical services and that a unified department coordinates all three services. However, public safety more often means the delivery of services related to these functions with specialized departments. Communities that provide both fire suppression and emergency medical services most often combine these functions, and a few entities have combined law enforcement and emergency medical services. Treatment and transportation of the sick and injured (emergency medical services) is often provided by a department owned and operated by the governmental entity, but it is also not unusual in urban settings for the private ambulance companies providing this service on a fee basis. Local governments can charge for emergency services as well, but that practice is more the exception than the rule. As tax revenues diminish, more communities are likely to impose fees to cover some portion of their public safety expenditures.
Public safety services can be performed by the public entity itself, or it can purchase emergency services from other governmental entities, and public entities can join together to provide emergency services on a cooperative, shared basis. None of these options are necessarily the best choice for a given community, as local circumstances and differences in policy preferences can rule out cooperative ventures. An extensive paper on joint services is located elsewhere on this website, and can be found by clicking here.
Virtually all townships provide fire suppression services, most commonly through a department owned by the township, but almost as many townships provide fire suppression by purchasing the service from a neighboring entity or by a jointly-owned department serving multiple jurisdictions. Fire authorities, which are separate public corporations created by local governments but subsequently empowered to act with a high degree of independence, is another option growing in popularity. Local governments also purchase specialized services and equipment such as aerial apparatus, hazardous materials responses, confined space rescues, or inspection and code enforcement. The incidence of structure fires has declined in the past several decades due to better construction and fire prevention codes. In addition to fire suppression, fire departments often provide fire safety education and enforce a fire prevention code.
Most fire departments in Michigan are staffed entirely by personnel who are either paid to respond to individual emergencies from their homes or businesses, or who receive no compensation at all. Extensive training is required by state law for fire fighters before they can be actively engaged in fire suppression activities. In medium-sized communities fire departments have a few career, full-time fire fighters who are augmented by on-call personnel. The largest townships and cities are served entirely by career-personnel.
Most townships are relatively rural and have very infrequent incidents needing law enforcement; consequently, state police and sheriff deputies provide an adequate basic level of service. As townships grow in population or have major roadways that create more law enforcement issues, contracts with sheriff departments for additional patrols and crime investigation services are more common. Larger townships, as well as other smaller townships have their own police departments similar to those of most cities and many villages. Jointly operated law enforcement entities are relatively rare but may become more common as local governments seek innovative ways to cut costs.
Emergency medical services (EMS) involve the pre-hospital treatment and transportation of the sick and injured. In communities with dense populations, privately owned ambulance companies frequently provide EMS services, with fire departments providing support. Unlike law enforcement and fire services which are traditionally funded with tax dollars as governmental services, EMS has evolved as an adjunct of the field of medicine, where payment is expected from the patient and third party payers such as insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid. The revenue stream available to EMS providers allows the private sector to profitably operate in areas where there are enough calls for service that the providers fixed costs can be recovered. Unfortunately, that market only exists where there is a high call volume.
Local governments provide EMS services in a variety of ways, including stand alone departments; in combination with the fire department and less often by the police department; contracts with other governmental entities; and through a jointly owned department or a multi-unit authority. Some EMS departments only provide pre-hospital emergency treatment, and transportation is provided by another public entity or a private ambulance company. Regardless, any government or firm that represents itself to the public as providing emergency medical services must be licensed by the state of Michigan and all personnel who treat the sick and injured must hold current state licenses at varying levels of skills. The license level of the service and the individual determines the level of sophisticated medical procedures that a patient can receive. All EMS providers are supervised by a medical control authority under the auspices of a licensed physician.
Local governments are also expected to be prepared for exceptional emergencies and disasters. Examples of disasters potentially occurring in Michigan include tornadoes, snow and ice storms, hazardous material discharges, nuclear power plant malfunctions, terrorist attacks on people and infrastructure, or other broad scale infrastructure failures. Because no local government has sufficient resources to handle any and all emergencies such as these, local governments need to coordinate their plans that address mitigation (disaster prevention), preparedness, response and recovery.
Emergency response is a coordinated effort involving all levels of government. County emergency management directors are primarily responsible for emergency planning and response in communities under 10,000 populations and for larger entities that have not appointed their own emergency management director. For additional information, click here.
Local governments also protect the public by enforcing a state-adopted construction code that builders and contractors must follow when they construct structures for human occupancy. The code is written by national experts to minimize design and construction flaws that could result in injuries and preserve the property’s value. Local governments also adopt ordinances that regulate behavior that can be detrimental to other people. And local governments plan with other governmental entities for major emergencies and disasters that would require a response that exceeds an individual community’s resources.
Local governments do not provide public safety services in a vacuum or without regard for the efforts of other governmental entities. Law enforcement entities coordinate their efforts so that police officers and sheriff deputies are appropriately deployed; fire departments routinely provide mutual aid when a fire or other emergency requires additional staffing or equipment; and emergency medical services are coordinated to ensure that the most appropriate service is provided regardless of political jurisdiction. Disaster planning is coordinated by the Emergency Management Division of the Michigan Department of State Police, and the state fire marshal oversees the investigation of suspicious fires.