Are Police and Fire Department Mergers Catching On?

As the cost of public safety continues to rise, some cities are thinking the once unthinkable: merging police and fire agencies into one.
by | August 8, 2013

This July, Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Steven Fulop did something only a small number of cities have attempted: He introduced a measure to establish a Department of Public Safety, which would effectively merge the city's financially strapped police and fire departments. Granted, the proposed merger only involves administrative operations and shared services, such as technology, but mergers like this are highly controversial.

Before Jersey City, Bay City, Mich., went a step further and merged both police and fire departments from top to bottom, cross-training police officers in police and some firefighter duties; 10 firefighters were laid off. The merger is expected to save the city $1.8 million by 2017. Three other major cities in Michigan -- Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming -- are considering the formation of a metropolitan public safety agency that would consolidate police and fire operations, cutting costs by $17 million per year.

Only 128 jurisdictions have merged police and fire administrations out of the more than 18,000 agencies in the U.S., according to a study by Michigan State University. Even fewer cities have attempted to cross-train police and firefighters. Part of the reason it happens so infrequently is the cost. But outright resistance to change, especially among firefighters, is another huge barrier, says Leonard Matarese, director of research and public safety programs at the International City/County Management Association.

Interest in the consolidation and merging of police and fire operations has ebbed and flowed with economic conditions, Matarese says. Adding that, this time, however, there appears to be a real "reset" taking place. For much of the 20th century, he says, police and fire departments have been low-cost, labor-intensive operations. But that has changed as pay and benefits for public safety have grown. The cost of running separate police and fire departments with large staffs has become increasingly unsustainable, especially for smaller jurisdictions.

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At the same time, operations have changed, especially for fire departments. With fewer fires, thanks to better building codes and fire alarms, fire departments increasingly respond to medical emergencies not blazing structures. "Something like 80 percent of calls to fire departments are for first response to a medical emergency, not a fire," says Matarese. Calls like that don't need a fully manned pumper to respond. In Spokane, Wash., the city's Fire Department and the Firefighters Union have just agreed to sending one-person units for calls that are likely to be non-threatening.

Most mergers involve small, rural jurisdictions, but there are a few large cities that run combined departments. For example, Sunnyvale, Calif., population 142,000, has been cross-training its police and firefighters since the 1950s. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridges, tunnels and ports for the region, operates its own police department that is cross-trained to handle fire emergencies. Kalamazoo, Mich., a mid-size city, has run a consolidated public safety department since 1983.

Still, changes like this continue to meet stiff resistance. The agreement between the city of Spokane and the union is for a one-month trial only. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and other related associations have criticized consolidations and mergers as costly, morale busting measures that break up the team-building concept that is the root of how firefighters work. Most importantly, they criticize the idea that a single public safety officer can be adequately cross-trained to do two highly specialized jobs.

However, Matarese points out that in smaller jurisdictions, most firefighters are volunteers, which means they hold down a full-time job in addition to their work as a firefighter. In other words, he argues, cross-training can work.

It may take some time, but don't be surprised if the next time there's a medical emergency, instead of a fully-manned fire truck arriving on the scene, there's a chance a single cross-trained public safety professional will up -- in a SUV, no less.

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