Benton Harbor's Public Safety Department questioned

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Benton Harbor, Mich. Some Benton Harbor leaders are worried about the current state of the city’s public safety department following the findings of a Michigan OSHA safety probe.

As a result of the investigation, the Public Safety Department’s fire division was cited for numerous violations.

Among them, the department didn’t follow the ‘two in, two out’ rule when Lt. Doug Bell was severely burned while responding to a house fire back in March.

At Monday’s meeting, commissioners had several questions for Public Safety Director Roger Lange about the status of the department correcting the violations.

“My first question would be as it relates to the findings, which has been described as gross neglect,” said Commissioner-at-Large Marcus Muhammad. “I would ask what did you know and when did you know it?”

Lange says some of the problems with the department date back to before it became Public Safety. He says during the transition from separate police and fire departments to one department, it was discovered the fire division had no standard operating procedures or standard operating guidelines. Benton Harbor firefighters were likely responding to emergencies without them for years.

Lange says last July, Captain Daniel McGinnis started writing guidelines for the department from scratch. They were being revised at the time of the incident with Lt. Bell, but are now nearly complete.

Commissioners also had several questions for Lange about outdated equipment. They were alarmed to find the fire division had more than a dozen expired air tanks.

It’s an issue Lange says he knew about in 2012 and tried to correct under former Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris.

“I gave notification of what was needed and I can't do anything more than what I’m allowed to do,” Lange said.

The air tanks were supposed to be replaced as part of Harris’ spending plan, but he was removed as Benton Harbor’s EM before that happened.

Still, several commissioners said they were concerned by the fact more of the issues weren’t corrected before MIOSHA investigated.

“To take over a department and have an inspection and you don't know what you don't know is one thing,” said Mayor James Hightower. “But, to have several violations and several things that have been documented and not be persistent, that's another issue.”

After more than an hour of questioning, the commissioners voted 7-1 in favor of a resolution asking Emergency Manager Tony Saunders to review the MIOSHA findings and the department’s previous practices and, if necessary, take disciplinary action.

Third Ward Commissioner Juanita Henry is the only one who opposed the measure.

“Can you put the state in there?” she asked of the resolution. “I will vote for that if you put Joe Harris in.”

The city faces thousands of dollars in fines as a result of the MIOSHA violations.
Lange says the department is working on replacing the necessary equipment to meet MIOSHA guidelines. It will cost about $46,000 and all orders must be placed by July 29.

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