By Leischen Stelter, American Military University
his month, Rockford, Michigan, will celebrate its one-year anniversary of officially consolidating its police and fire departments. This small city of 5,775 residents currently has its entire department cross-trained as public safety officers in fire, police, and medical services.
The decision to consolidate departments in Rockford was not a hasty one, but it certainly was prompted by financial hardship. Police Chief David Jones recognized more than seven years ago the impending need to consolidate departments, and he began researching and evaluating public safety models.1 When the economy tanked in 2008 and funds for public safety started drying up, Jones considered this budgetary calamity the right opportunity to push for a consolidated, cross-trained staff.
While there has historically been reluctance to cut public safety funding in the United States, many communities have found and continue to find themselves in a similar situation as Rockford. In 2009, local governments spent more than $80 billion on police services and more than $40 billion on fire services.2 Personnel costs are the greatest expense in the public safety budget, reaching upwards of 80 percent of a police or fire budget.3
In an effort to reduce department costs, Chief Jones began analyzing Rockford’s public safety services, and what he found probably will not surprise many public safety professionals. Based on internal research, Jones estimated that about 85 percent of the city’s call volume for fire services were actually medical calls and as little as 5 percent were actually fire related.4
This finding is not unique to Rockford. In the past 25 years, the number of fires in the United States fell by 38 percent, while the number of firefighters increased by 42 percent and the number of fire departments increased by 7 percent. In addition, emergency medical services responses increased by 166 percent.5
Chief Jones also found a significant amount of staffing duplication. For example, on a medical call, both fire and police would respond in addition to medical personnel. It was costly not only to have so many staff respond to an incident (often unnecessarily) but also to have large equipment present at a scene (again, often unnecessarily).6 There were other areas of duplication, too, including administration, facilities, communications, and equipment.7
While Chief Jones took it upon himself to evaluate and research Rockford’s public safety operations, not much research and data are available about consolidation models and best practices to help police chiefs decide the best path toward consolidation.
Decision Making Based on Data, Not Anecdotes
In recognition of this lack of information, the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Criminal Justice partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to focus on public safety consolidation. Professor Jeremy Wilson, PhD, is the director of the program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services at MSU. His team’s research focuses on evaluating the organization of public safety departments, the short- and long-term costs and benefits of consolidation, consolidation’s effect on community policing, and how employees respond when the nature of their jobs change.8
The common thread for most consolidated departments is that they are being forced to jump into this because of budgetary cuts. “In light of the recession, communities were thrust into situations where they didn’t have enough information to guide them,” said Wilson.9 Budget cuts resulted in unprecedented reactions in the law enforcement community including layoffs, furloughs, disbanding, and consolidation, he said.
It is important that police chiefs make informed decisions based on research and analysis. “Often, policing decisions and strategies are based on gut reactions and what people think works instead of what is shown to work,” said Wilson.10 The research being done by the university is focused on gathering and analyzing data and information to support effective decision making by law enforcement agencies.
As of May 2012, there were 130 agencies in the United States with at least nominal consolidation of public safety services. The 130 agencies are spread across at least 25 states, but Michigan, with at least 54, has more such agencies than any other state. The consolidation model is most prevalent among small- and medium-size agencies, and it is used in both rural and urban communities.11
This research effort between MSU and the COPS Office will include a comprehensive assessment of consolidated public safety services, including a literature review, focus-group research, a national survey of consolidated public safety departments, and further in-depth case studies of both consolidated and deconsolidated public safety departments.12
The Basics of Consolidation
Wilson outlined four typical models of consolidation:
1. Full consolidation: The full integration of police and fire services, where public safety officers are cross-trained in both police and fire services with a consolidated management and command.
2. Partial consolidation: A partial integration of police and fire services, where cross-trained public safety officers work alongside separate police and fire personnel, and consolidation is limited to select positions within the organization’s hierarchy.
3. Functional consolidation: Where police and fire services are not integrated but consolidation occurs within middle or upper management.
4. Nominal consolidation: Where police and fire services are not integrated, there are no cross-trained public safety officers, but in which separate police and fire services may share facilities or training and dispatch resources and a public safety director may oversee separate police and fire services.13
Among the perceived benefits of consolidation are potential increases in efficiency, promotion of community policing, and enhancement of community safety. Consolidation can also enhance homeland security preparedness by improving communication among all public safety personnel, unifying command structures, planning for all inclusive emergency responses, and comprehensive training.14
Chief Jones has found that one of the major advantages of a public safety model is that police officers are able to respond immediately to a call, rather than waiting for a designated response team. This has resulted in lower response times in terms of the first person to a scene. “Once I experienced that from a chief’s point of view, I thought, ‘Why hadn’t I thought about this a long time ago?’ It’s a lot more efficient, and we’re able to mobilize our resources and respond in moments,” he said.15
Consolidation Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Because consolidation is not the same for every community, more research is needed. “The fact of the matter is that delivering public safety services is so contextual,” MSU’s Wilson said.16 Oftentimes, agencies are searching for a silver bullet, but there are so many configurations for consolidation models that law enforcement leadership must take the time to find a solution specific to their communities. “What works great in one community, might not work in others,” Wilson said. “A key lesson is that none of these are one-size-fits-all, and it’s critical to understand the local circumstances.”17
Finding Unique Solutions
Chief Jones recognized that consolidation had to meet the needs and expectations of his community. One of the unique elements of the Rockford public safety model is that it incorporates the city’s public works department as trained firefighters. The city has police officers cross-trained as police and fire, firefighters cross-trained as police, and public works employees cross-trained as firefighters. The city now has 20 full-time firefighters trained and available to respond, which is more than it had before its consolidation efforts.
In Rockford, the total department is 32 full-time employees, all of which are trained as firefighters, 13 of which are police officers and 19 of which are public works employees. Every employee has medical training as well. “We’re only in our first year of transition, but it’s working as planned and we’re efficiently responding to calls for service,” said Jones.18
Realities of Consolidation
Many times, communities and law enforcement leaders resort to consolidation efforts because they think it will result in immediate cost savings. However, this is rarely the case.19 Rather, cost savings, if they occur, occur over time. As a matter of fact, consolidation can actually be cost prohibitive for communities. For example, municipalities need to pay for training, backfilling positions of individuals while they’re in training, new uniforms, new contracts, and sometimes even new vehicles.
In some cases, cross-training officers actually increases costs, particularly when public safety officers are required to carry both police and fire gear. Departments considering consolidation must realize that cross-training each officer in both areas of police and fire is more than simply providing unilateral training. There are significant costs to providing basic and continuing refresher training for personnel.20
Potential Pitfalls of Consolidation
Many people remain skeptical about the benefits of consolidation, especially in light of the deconsolidation of many departments. Some of the most common reasons cited for deconsolidation include poor operational policies; inadequate preparation; poor personnel relationships; strong political pressures; and, most importantly, weak administration.21 For example, the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport Public Safety Department in Fresno, California, deconsolidated in 2005 after more than 20 years of operating as a consolidated department. One of the reasons this department deconsolidated was because local officials determined that the public safety department could not provide all the necessary services for the community.22
There is also concern about whether or not a department has adequate resources to support the desired level of service and if it can recruit talented personnel who can be both efficient and effective in this environment. 23 Some question whether or not personnel are receiving the high standards of training needed to meet the needs of public safety. In addition, many question whether officers in public safety departments are gaining the skills they need for their individual career development.
Legal issues also are paramount when it comes to consolidation. For example, a legal case in Washington state involving the Mercer Island Public Safety Department found that the city was unable to define a public safety officer within its state safety retirement system. Public safety officers were neither police officers nor firefighters.24 Many departments also face legal and political pressure from organized police and fire unions.25 Unions often are concerned with job cuts that may result from consolidation and therefore are not willing to cooperate with some of the legal changes that need to occur for consolidation.
Size Doesn’t Matter
It is common for law enforcement leadership to cite the size of their department as an impediment to consolidation. However, there is growing evidence that the size of a department doesn’t indicate success or failure.
In the United States, there are 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies with 765,000 personnel.26 These U.S. police agencies vary greatly in size, with nearly half of them employing fewer than 10 full-time officers, while two-thirds of officers work for agencies with at least 100 officers.27
“I think if anybody looked at Rockford, they would say we provide more service more efficiently with reduced staff, and we’ve experienced considerable cost savings,” said Chief Jones. “We’ve seen the benefits and it works well for agencies of our size.”28
The path to consolidation is never easy for a community. It is imperative that local leaders are on board and supportive of the effort. In addition, all stakeholders must be involved in consolidation efforts, including elected officials, administrators, employees, and citizens.
Chief Jones said there was minimal resistance about changing to a public safety model after he explained the financial situation. It became apparent that these changes were a matter of sustainability and survivability. “By doing this, we were able to assure not only our residents but also our employees that their jobs were safe. We had to lay off a couple of people, but compared to other agencies, our losses were minimal,” he said.29
It is extremely challenging for leadership to think through the implementation side of consolidation efforts, said MSU’s Wilson. These are not changes that can be made overnight, and it takes an incredible amount of planning and support to make the transition.
There are many cultural sensitivities involved with consolidation. Those embracing a public safety model must take care to “honor” both police and firefighting professions. 30 For example, public safety directors from policing backgrounds must make a concerted effort not to favor police services and need to increase their understanding of the firefighting profession so they can make informed decisions regarding its services and vice versa.
Success in combining fire and police departments is largely dependent on attitude and personalities. Cross-training will be more difficult at municipalities with departments at odds with each other. Those with good working relationships at the onset are much more likely to be successful at consolidation. Therefore, strong leadership plays an important role in consolidation efforts.
The Importance of Balanced Leadership
Christopher Elg is currently the chief of police for the city of West Monroe, Louisiana. Prior to this position, he was the director of public safety in Van Buren Township in Michigan. Chief Elg said that one of the most important aspects for success in leading a public safety department is his diverse background: He spent 14 years as a volunteer firefighter and assistant chief before becoming a police chief.31 He also had more than 30 years’ experience as an EMT. This background allowed him to be able to talk the language of these different fields. “I was personally interested in police and fire services, so being the director of public safety was the best of both worlds,” he said.32
Changes in Recruiting and Officer Skills
The prevalence of consolidation will fundamentally change the job functions of public safety employees. Since many communities are triple-cross-training their employees in police, fire, and paramedic duties, the skill set is much more demanding for the individual.
Wilson from MSU recently wrote the police recruitment guide for COPS Office. One of the things he argued was that there’s now a dynamic police staffing challenge for departments.33 Police chiefs must find qualified officers who are more analytical in nature and can communicate effectively to diverse audiences. As law enforcement organizations changed, the need to staff effectively has changed, too.
Public safety leaders must staff their agencies with individuals who can meet the evolving challenges of policing. Single employees are taking on a larger role and must be able to arrive on a scene and provide comprehensive service. While some communities are concerned about diminished quality of service, there is growing evidence that this model can work effectively and can actually enhance the quality of service.
The Role of Education
It has become more evident that education is playing an increasingly significant role in efforts to achieve these multiple skill sets. Chief Elg is also a professor at American Military University (AMU), where he teaches courses in criminal justice and homeland security. He has seen considerable growth in the number of students branching out in terms of the degree programs they are pursuing.
For example, many students interested in law enforcement careers are pursuing degrees in emergency management or homeland security rather than in criminal justice. While their end goal is still law enforcement, many students recognize the need to have a broader knowledge base to give them more career opportunities. Students are still looking to start their careers in traditional municipal law enforcement positions but realize that if they want to move to federal law enforcement or positions within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it is important to couple their police experience with a strong educational background in homeland security, emergency management, or even intelligence studies.
Elg said this crossover in disciplines is becoming more evident inside the online classroom as well. “At AMU, there are many classes that have students from the military, police, and fire services,” he said. It is beneficial for students to gain the perspective of other students who have careers in a variety of fields. “This gives them a greater opportunity to learn from each other about their jobs,” he said.34
The Benefits of Continuing Research
With a growing number of communities considering consolidation, more research must be done to aid police chiefs. While there has been some effort by associations and consulting firms to help communities think through consolidation feasibility, there remains a gap in scientific inquiry, said Wilson.35
MSU recently received additional funding awards to launch a formal program into studying police consolidation and shared services. Using this funding, MSU now has 10 distinct projects researching different forms of consolidation efforts. The current research on public safety consolidation aims to
- create a national census and administer a survey of public safety agencies,
- conduct in-depth case studies of agencies and communities that have consolidated public safety as well as those that have deconsolidated, and
- survey residents to assess their perceptions and assessments of public safety consolidation.
Police chiefs will have access to this body of work in the form of journal articles, training webinars, briefings, and the development of a web-based portal of resources, among many things, said Wilson.36
The most important element is that communities and police chiefs have access to information and data about the realities of consolidation. “It struck us that communities were being put in positions to not just talk about different ways of delivering services, but to implement them; however, there was little objective analysis to guide their decision making,” said Wilson.37 Hopefully, future research will provide the independent analysis that police leaders need to make decisions about how to best provide cost-effective, efficient public safety services in their communities. ♦
1 Chief of Police David Jones, Rockford, Michigan, interview, October 23, 2012.
2 U.S. Census Bureau, State and Local Government Finance, http://www.census.gov/govs/estimate (accessed November 15, 2012).
3 Jeremy M. Wilson et al., “Public Safety Consolidation: What Is It? How Does It Work?” Be on the Lookout, August 2012, http://cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e061220468_BOLO2_508.pdf (accessed November 15, 2012).
4 Jones, interview.
5 Jeremy M Wilson and Clifford Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services: Options, Considerations, and Lessons from Research and Practice,” Be on the Lookout, February 2012, http://cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e1211_bolo.pdf (accessed November 15, 2012).
6 Jones, interview.
7 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
9 Jeremy Wilson, Michigan State University, interview, October 23, 2012.
11 Wilson et al., “Public Safety Consolidation.”
12 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
13 Wilson et al., “Public Safety Consolidation.”
14 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
15 Jones, interview.
16 Wilson, interview.
18 Jones, interview.
19 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
20 Robert Bryant Bates, “Perceptions of Line and Staff Consolidated Public Safety Departments’ Officers of the Adequacy of Training and Resources” (PhD dissertation, Alliant International University, 2008).
25 Mark Rosen, “Police and Fire Consolidation: Never Say ‘Never,’” Journal of California Law Enforcement,44, no. 2 (2010): 17-24.
26 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
28 Jones, interview.
30 Wilson and Grammich, “Police Consolidation, Regionalization, and Shared Services.”
31 Christopher Elg, professor at American Military University, interview, October 23, 2012.
33 Jeremy M. Wilson et al., Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium: The State of Knowledge (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2010), http://cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/101027321_Police-RecruitmentRetention.pdf (accessed November 15, 2012).
34 Christopher Elg, interview.
35 Wilson, interview.
Please cite as:
Leischen Stelter, "The Growing Need for Independent Research and Analysis to Aid Chiefs in Evaluating Public Safety Consolidation Models," The Police Chief 80 (January 2013): 30–33.