What is in this article?:
Public-safety consolidation has garnered greater attention as municipalities struggle with fiscal constraints. Will this lead to the end of fire services or an improved public-safety model where everyone speaks the same language?
(Appeared in print as "Tower of Babel")
A lackluster economy continues to hurt public-safety funding. As a result, some mayors and city managers are looking to the public-safety consolidation model in order to save money as well as to provide better services to their communities.
The public-safety consolidation model takes law enforcement, EMS and fire and places them under the same umbrella. While there are several different layers of consolidation, traditionally it means cross-training personnel to be capable of responding to police, fire and EMS calls.
Not everyone is a fan of the concept, and using the term public-safety officer (PSO) can be controversial. In fact, theopposes consolidation, including the transition to public-safety officers. In its policy statement, the IAFC states the consolidation of fire and emergency service departments and law-enforcement agencies creates a “hazardous environment for the public and responders as the activities of law-enforcement officers and firefighters/paramedics require vastly different training.”
The consolidation concept replaces the functional unit of a fire department with the limited response of one or two individuals in a single unit, according to the policy statement.
“It also complicates a specific mission-based focus, resulting in confusion and hazardous inefficiency in on-scene operations,” the policy statement read. “In addition to hazardous response conditions, such an environment can contribute to personnel morale and retention problems.
Fire’s many hats
Fire personnel continue to take on more responsibility to address issues like domestic terrorism, with more departments adopting an all-hazards approach. Indeed, firefighters already respond to vehicle accidents, perform search and rescue, respond to natural disasters, and identify hazardous materials, as well as address radiological threats, bio-security and pandemic identification.
Yet recent economic changes have greatly affected the ability of communities to maintain public-safety services. For many, budget-reducing tactics, such as marginal cuts, have not been enough to balance local budgets. These have led to hiring freezes, layoffs, furloughs, brownouts or even the disbanding of entire departments.
However, research shows several benefits to the model both for personnel and for the community they serve. Researchers at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice have been gathering data on consolidated public-safety agencies and why the provision of public-safety services is among the most challenging tasks a community faces.
To start, expenditures for public safety are among the largest costs to communities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, local governments spent more than $80billion on police services and more than $40 billion on fire services in 2009, with about 80% of budgets spent on personnel costs.
Researchers also found that consolidation is more common than anyone would like to admit. As of May 2012, they had confirmed 130 agencies with at least nominal consolidation of public-safety services across at least 25 states, except Michigan, which had at least 54 more than any other state. The model is most prevalent among small- and medium-size agencies. It is used in rural and urban communities.
In addition, there are several models. Public-safety service consolidation may be simply placing executive functions under a single chief executive but not an integration of police and fire services. Or, it can be a partial integration of police and fire services with cross-trained public safety officers working together and consolidation within the administrative rank. It also can be full consolidation of police and fire, with everyone cross-trained to respond. This includes consolidated management and command.
Among the perceived benefits consolidation may offer is increased efficiency by reducing the total need for line staff as well as the duplication in administration, communication services and physical infrastructure. In addition, the model gives a community a broadly trained officer who can arrive on the scene of an incident and immediately assess the equipment and resources required.
“This frequently can prevent the needless dispatch of large equipment (and certain personnel) that is not only expensive to operate, but can place the community at risk (when driving quickly from location to location),” the report reads. “Public safety consolidation also can help communities meet evolving needs. Changes in the fire industry help illustrate this. The fire industry has evolved from fire suppression to greater provision of emergency medical services.”
Indeed, the fire service has seen a decrease of 43% of fires from 1983 to 2010. However, personnel numbers have grown, with the report stating during the same period the number of career firefighters increased 48% and the number of fire departments increased 7%. In addition, emergency-medical calls increased 260% from 1980, according NFPA 2011c.
“Providing more broadly trained personnel can help public safety agencies address such evolving needs,” the report said. “It also can make more staff continuously available to respond to a broader range of calls. More broadly trained personnel also can help communities reduce the total number of personnel they require.”
In addition, the model may increase comprehensive community safety and homeland security by enhancing communication between police and fire personnel, including a unified command structure and training. The report noted that first responders’ new and evolving roles of responding to terrorist attacks and similar emergencies have put a heavier workload on personnel than years past — and consolidation may relieve some of the overload.