Can you successfully merge a police and fire department? The answer: it depends. In a recent web conference, ICMA examined the Public Safety Concept, a controversial concept that focuses on the creation of public safety officers who perform dual roles as police and fire fighter. In a frank look at the pros and cons, Leonard Matarese, ICMA’s director of research and public safety programs, joined Jane Bais DiSessa, city manager of Berkley, Michigan, a city that successfully merged its police and fire departments.
The concept, as Matarese explained, first appeared in ancient Rome with Centurions in dual police-fire fighter roles. In 1857, Trois-Riveres, Quebec, became the first city in North America to introduce the Public Safety Concept and in 1911, Gross Pointe Shores, Michigan, became the first city in the United States to adopt it. Interest in the concept grew in the 1950s and 1960s, when firefighters’ work weeks were reduced from 72 hours to 56 hours. Since then, interest spikes during economic downturns.
The benefits of the concept include increased service levels with fewer personnel, more patrol, faster response times, and a financial savings that is typically between 10 percent and 20 percent. Bais DiSessa reported that Berkley realizes more than $1.6 million in annual savings. The staff dropped from 35 police and fire fighters working 8-hour shifts to 28 public safety officers working 12-hour shifts. In Berkley, the reduction in force occurred through attrition.
There are significant challenges, however, to adopting the Public Safety Concept. The transition period often causes morale issues. The concept demands a higher-caliber employee, leaving jurisdictions with a smaller pool of candidates from which to choose. It also requires better management, more training, and more equipment.
Additionally, the politics behind such a merger often weigh heavily on the decision. The International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs are opposed to the concept, and many elected officials are hesitant to support consolidation because of its controversial nature.
Learn more about the Public Safety Concept and how to determine if it is viable for your community.