By Leischen Stelter
It feels like every day I read about another public safety consolidation effort. A story that made its way into my inbox today is about Bay City, Mich. city commission getting ready to discuss a plan to consolidate and cross-train police and firefighters.
Consolidation efforts are almost always caused by slashed budgets and promises of cost savings. That’s the case in Bay City:
“Personnel costs can be greatly reduced with cross-trained public safety officers who can serve citizens in a dual role providing both police and fire services,” states the draft plan created by a special city committee. “This would result in additional police on the street who can also respond to the scene of a fire. There would be no reduction in fire services, while the personnel assigned to the fire stations are greatly reduced.”
I’m sure most firefighters would strongly disagree with the broad statement that reducing personnel will have NO impact on fire services. Simply the fact that there are fewer highly trained fire personnel seems like it would lend itself to a change in services. Feel free to argue (or support me) in the comment section below.
Bay City plans to make this transition in five years, starting with the appointment of a “public safety director,” which will void existing police and fire contracts. Overall, about 25 positions will be cut. The plan calls for three police officers to be cross-trained for every one firefighter. Firefighters who are cross-trained will fill vacant positions left by retiring police officers. In general, police officers who are cross-trained will respond to assist at fires.
Consolidating these departments is not new in Michigan. Rockford, MI police officers were certified in March as firefighters. Rockford estimates it will save $200,000 annually. Similarly, East Grand Rapids and Big Rapids have cross-trained police to undertake firefighter and medical first responder duties.
And there are many more cities considering such measures. I just read this article about Redding, Calif. considering having one administrator for police and fire services. That decision could save the city $50,000 to $90,000 in six to 10 years. I don’t deal with large budgets on a regular basis, but possibly saving $50,000 in a 10-year time span doesn’t really seem like a strong financial argument to me.
Anyway, when I attended the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s Annual Fire & Emergency Services Seminars in April, the economy was a significant topic of discussion. Chief Mark Light from the International Association of Fire Chiefs discussed the situation in Michigan and said one of the most significant flaws with this effort is that officers tend to have a propensity for either law enforcement or fire services, but not both. He also discussed the very real issue of uneven distribution of resources. (You can read the full blog post here).
In addition, there is the argument that while reducing the number of firefighters and consolidating fire houses may save citizens money as a budget line item, it may actually increase their home insurance premiums. I just read this article about North Carolina homeowners recently experiencing a premium hike based on their proximity to a fire station. While this article is more focused on how insurance companies are using GPS to determine fire ratings than it is on municipalities reducing fire stations, the point is that insurance premiums will increase if there are fewer fire stations near residential areas. It is a “hidden” cost of these consolidation efforts and something I bet the public is probably not aware of when they go to vote on reducing or consolidating fire and police services. Time to spread the word.