All police officers wear many “hats” in their everyday duties, but a few also wear a firefighter helmet and a paramedic cap. These cross-trained officers generally work for an integrated agency, often referred to as a Department of Public Safety (DPS), although this title can also apply to non-integrated umbrella agencies that house separate emergency services. While integrated first responder agencies are not necessarily a new concept, it is estimated that a very small number of jurisdictions have fully integrated functions of law enforcement, fire suppression, and emergency medical services. This integration (or consolidation) takes the form of cross-training personnel to perform the multiple functions that are required of a police officer, firefighter, and emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic. Integration may not be the right choice for all agencies, and the decision to consolidate is a significant one. The structure, benefits, strengths, weaknesses, start-up costs, and related issues are all important considerations for agencies to examine before making such a decision; however, recent empirical research in this area is beginning to emerge to offer guidance to agencies considering consolidation.
Police officers are often cross-trained to perform multiple functions, although such cross-training is usually limited to functions directly related to law enforcement, such as K-9, investigations, and school resource officer. At a fire or medical incident, most police officers perform only security or very basic first aid. Officers are usually not expected to run into a burning building or start an IV. However, a small number of officers, sometimes referred to as public safety officers (PSOs) do perform such roles and have received the necessary training for these incidents. In Sunnyvale, California, for example, the roles of police officer and firefighter are combined. Sunnyvale’s basic training includes a 26-week police academy, 18 weeks of police field training, a 12-week fire academy, and a 6-week EMS academy.1
While there are several typologies for integration, there are three main ways: full, partial, and nominal. Full integration is when all PSOs are cross-trained in all areas, such as the Sunnyvale example.2 In partial integration, a limited number of officers are cross-trained, and those who are cross-trained are not trained in all areas. For example, a department might train some of their peace officers as police officers and firefighters, others as police officers and paramedics, and the remaining personnel as police officers only. Another type of partial integration maintains the distinct job functions with some limited crossover, such as hydrant training or more advanced first aid training. The third type of integrated department, nominally integrated, only merges administrative, upper management, and support functions, while maintaining the traditional distinct job functions of police officer, firefighter, or paramedic. Each type of integration has its own strengths, weaknesses, and challenges.
Research in Consolidation
Cross-training is common in many industries, but until recently, the virtual lack of empirical research in public safety cross-training has hindered transparent discussion of the rationale for integration. This lack of information also denies agencies considering cross-training the guidance needed to maintain public safety and prevent problems ranging from staff morale to conflict to adequacy of service provided during the integration process. In response to the dearth of research and resources in this area, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) helped fund the Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS) at Michigan State University.3 PCASS is conducting research about public safety consolidation and shared services, in order to provide agencies with more robust, evidence-based guidance on integration options to determine whether (and which model of) consolidation might be right for them.4 PCASS founder and current director, Jeremy Wilson, has been working with public safety agencies to better understand how they work and compare the different models of consolidation. Wilson says there are many ways to implement consolidation, and an agency needs to look at the process holistically—not only in terms of economic impact, but also in terms of service quality and comprehensiveness.5
Considerations and Challenges for Consolidation
There are several factors and stakeholders to consider when contemplating any of the integration models described herein. Most departments seem to first consider integration because of potential cost savings and efficiencies. Having personnel who are able to perform more functions can mean less personnel to employ. However, identifying and screening who should be in these positions, and then training these individuals can be more time consuming and costly. The impact on crime, fear of crime, effectiveness, and how the quality of life may improve for the community must also be part of the discussion. The willingness and desire of the stakeholders, to include line personnel, management and leadership, other government officials, employee unions, and community members, underlines any discussion on moving towards integration. There sometimes is the misconception that service quality may be adversely impacted, and organizations need to study the short- and long-term challenges to better understand what model of integration would work best for their needs and those of the communities they serve.6
As research on integrated public safety agencies is only beginning to emerge, obtaining guidance is still largely based upon examining other agencies that have consolidated. One organization that has been highly successful with full integration is the Sunnyvale, California, Department of Public Safety. Sunnyvale’s DPS merged its firefighting and law enforcement functions in 1950 when it was a fairly small organization serving about 10,000 residents.7 Today, Sunnyvale has more than 140,000 residents (2010), and i DPS employs more than 200 peace officers.8 Sunnyvale Deputy Chief Dayton Pang said his department continues to embrace the concept of full integration and claims it allows the department to offer a higher level of service quality with lower comparable costs than if it had traditional police and fire departments. For example, while most fire departments have three to four firefighters assigned to a rig in a station, Sunnyvale has two PSOs and will pull patrol officers to help staff a fire rig during a call-out. Also, during a medical call, Sunnyvale will dispatch a patrol officer who has EMS training and equipment, including a defibrillator. Officers have been credited with several saves because of their response and treatment prior to paramedics’ arrival. Another example of the benefits of the DPS concept in Sunnyvale was the occurrence of a workplace shooting in another jurisdiction, after which the subject entered Sunnyvale. The ensuing manhunt required greater staffing than the 16 patrol officers on duty at the time, so when the fire shift ended, the PSOs assigned to fire service were held over and moved to policing functions, thus increasing the police force to more than 40 officers to handle service calls and search for the suspect. Sunnyvale DPS Captain Dave Verbrugge said the biggest challenge currently is finding qualified applicants who are interested in both police and firefighting service. Many of the applicants are more interested in the firefighter function and often have more disqualifying background issues than those applicants who are more focused on policing functions. The training curve (and cost) is also challenging, requiring 18 months before a new employee is fully trained as a PSO.9
In contrast to Sunnyvale, Michigan’s Meridian Township attempted consolidation in 1995, but ultimately reversed course. Chief David Hall, who was a lieutenant at the time, recounts that they attempted consolidation because they wanted “more cops on the road” and they could achieve this by having fewer PSOs in the fire station, and having patrol PSOs supplement any fire or medic needs.10 However, many of the firefighters were opposed to the integrated DPS concept, and successfully petitioned for reversal. The DPS was decoupled after about two years.
Change for any organization can be significant, and if not implemented appropriately, serious challenges involving staffing, resources, communication, and leadership can result.
Staffing can be complicated because it may require hiring more officers, losing officers who will not or cannot meet the new job requirements, or having multiple classifications for personnel who remain at legacy positions until they retire. Supervisory and leadership positions are also challenging, since the skill set needed to oversee police officers, firefighters, and paramedics is broader than if one were to supervise a single discipline.
Many organizations looking to integrate do so in the name of efficiency, because of the decrease in costs while maintaining similar levels of service. As the Canton, Michigan, PSD webpage states, “This method of operation allows for an efficient coordination of public safety services, while ensuring cost-effectiveness.”11 Canton has adopted the nominal integration model of separately staffed police and fire personnel, but consolidated administration, records, and dispatch. With this model, efficiencies may not be realized for several years. The aforementioned time it takes to fully train a PSO, along with substantial upfront costs can be particularly challenging for an agency, especially when it must also invest in covering shifts to accommodate initial and ongoing training.
Police and fire departments exist to protect and serve their communities. Having an integrated DPS may improve how the community is served and protected, as there appears to be some distinct advantages. Kalamazoo, Michigan, DPS’s website states that their unified fire and police services help achieve their goal of “providing the highest level of professional public service to our community.”12 When the DPS concept works, this enhanced service can come at a lower long-term cost. For instance, Sunnyvale’s per capita cost for public services is substantially lower than similar neighboring cities with traditional fire and police departments, yet the department stills maintains local control.13
Despite the comparatively high initial and ongoing training for PSOs, there may be greater job satisfaction by those who embrace the variety provided by the inclusive roles. The Kalamazoo DPS website states that their officers have unique opportunities to train and be promoted to specialized positions because of their combined organization. Sunnyvale’s Verbrugge said Sunnyvale DPS enjoys very low attrition because of the comparatively high pay and unique PSO career opportunities.14 Only one non-retiring Sunnyvale PSO has left in the last year, and that was because the individual wished to relocate. Meridian Township’s Chief Hall said he enjoyed the experience and laments that it was not successful for their township.15 Chief Lee Vague of Woodbury, Minnesota, Public Safety, another integrated agency, feels “the biggest benefit we have seen with integration is that it pretty much forces us to work together and train together. When cops and firefighters and paramedics train and work as a team day to day, even on the small stuff, it puts us in a better place when the big things happen. Integration is a bit messy. It can give headaches. But it really can be a great way to provide these important services and help us be better at the same time.”16
For public safety departments that rely heavily on volunteer or paid, on-call firefighters, cross-training police officers can provide more staff in the early, critical periods of large fire incidents. Essentially the police officers are themselves paid, on-call firefighters, who respond to a call while already on the streets of the city. Police officers who are trained as medical responders can also supplement professional paramedics.
In the private sector, mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures are commonplace. As local governments continue to be financially challenged, consolidation is being considered with greater frequency. While consolidation like the models addressed in this article are not common, there are more than 130 agencies that have some form of public safety integration.17 What has been learned from extant literature and those who have experienced consolidation is successful integration requires full buy-in from all key stakeholders, including unions and the community. Each potential integrated DPS must also look at which model will best fit its needs and abilities for successful integration. PCASS’s Wilson stressed that there as many ways to implement consolidation as there are agencies considering it, and each must assess its own circumstances to determine what best suits its needs. Wilson also said to carefully evaluate fire and EMS/transport demand, because jurisdictions that have greater need for fire services or public paramedic services may not benefit from a shift of personnel to law enforcement duties.18 PCASS’s work is beginning to capture the experiences of consolidated public safety efforts, which is an important step to providing evidence-based information to support innovation and best practices in this area.19♦
|Agencies who are considering consolidation should review Michigan State University’s Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services’ website, which includes related publications and other resources. Visit http://policeconsolidation.msu.edu.|
1 City of Sunnyvale, California, “Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety: Bureau of Special Operations,” http://sunnyvale.ca.gov/Departments/PublicSafety/Recruiting.aspx (accessed August 13, 2014).
3 Jeremy M. Wilson, Alexander Weiss, and Clifford Grammich, “Public Safety Consolidation: What Is It, How Does It Work?” Bolo: Be on the Lookout (Washington, D.C.: COPS Office, 2012), http://a-capp.msu.edu/sites/default/files/files/Consolidation_BOLO_august2012.pdf (accessed August 13, 2014).
4 Michigan State University, “Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS),” http://policeconsolidation.msu.edu (accessed August 13, 2014).
5 Jeremy Wilson, interview; and Wilson, Weiss, and Grammich, “Public Safety Consolidation: A Multi-Case Study Assessment” (COPS Office Panel presentation, American Society of Criminology, Atlanta, GA, November 21, 2013).
7 Wilson, Weiss, and Grammich, “Public Safety Consolidation.”
8 U.S. Census Bureau, United States 2010 Census; and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2011.
9 Dave Verbrugge (captain, Sunnyvale, California), interview, October 2013.
10 David Hall (police chief of Meridian Township), interview, November 2013.
11 Canton, Michigan, Public Safety, “Home page,” http://www.cantonpublicsafety.org/Pages/default.aspx (accessed November 2013).
12 Kalamazoo, Michigan, Department of Public Safety, “Home page,” http://www.kalamazoopublicsafety.org (accessed November 2013).
13 Lee Romney, “Cross-training of Public Safety Workers Attracting More Interest,” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/01/local/la-me-sunnyvale-20130101 (accessed August 13, 2014).
14 Dave Verbrugge, interview.
15 David Hall, interview.
16 Lee Vague, interview.
17 Jeremy Wilson, interview; and Wilson, Weiss, and Grammich, “Public Safety Consolidation.”
19 Michigan State University, “Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS).”
Please cite as:
Susan M. Hilal and David Squier Jones, “A Package Deal: Police, Fire, and EMS All in One,” The Police Chief 81 (September 2014): web-only article.