The Herald Bulletin

August 18, 2013

Fire chiefs question Public Safety Officer concept

Program would cross-train police officers, firefighters

By Jack Molitor The Herald Bulletin
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ANDERSON — “I didn’t become a firefighter to arrest people or get shot at.”

That was one of the strongest arguments made by Pendleton Fire Chief Danny Gardner when he talked about his opposition to the idea of Public Safety Officers. And he thinks a lot of firefighters around the country would agree with him.

The PSO concept, which has been adopted in some capacity by about 130 communities around the country, combines the responsibilities of some firefighters with police officers. The officers would receive cross training in both disciplines, preparing them to assist both departments when necessary.

The idea is being entertained in hundreds of other communities, especially ones facing budget crises because of the economic flux of the past decade. Officials are scrambling to make government more efficient by findings ways to cut back on resources while still providing the same basic services. Anderson Chief of Police Larry Crenshaw said in July that he was researching the effectiveness and long-term viability of a PSO program in Anderson, though he has not yet advocated its implementation.

The idea has been met with general opposition from fire chiefs and unions in Madison County. Almost every official interviewed said they wanted to research the topic. Gardner said he has some concerns.

“And, from the other side, I think police would feel the same. I don’t think they became policemen to go into a burning house and put out a fire,” said the volunteer fire chief. “We have the ultimate respect for police, but they’re different entities and they’re different kinds of people. But both are dangerous jobs.”

Gardner used a shooting in Pendleton last year as an example. On July 27, 2012, Kenneth J. Bailey went on a shooting rampage in the 300 block of Water Street after killing innocent bystander Neal Shull. Gardner said he was just down the road from the mayhem and could hear the gunshots.

“The last place I wanted to be was in the line of fire,” he said.

Gardner said the specialization needed for each job makes the time and training required to do both prohibitive. In 2009, the International Association of Firefighters drafted a general opposition to PSOs. The fire union argued the department would actually raise costs, neglect the fire safety program, provide insufficient on-the-job experience, cause role conflicts and destroy the team concept.

Elwood Fire Chief Brad Compton agreed.

“It has to be proven to work, and I think I see a lot of loopholes,” he said.

Interestingly, in many small Indiana communities some police officers already split time as volunteer firefighters. Compton, who has a few such volunteers in his department, said he doesn’t have a problem with that, if the officer can handle the stress of both jobs.

“I believe in public safety, and I have no problem with policemen, but they’re different people,” he said. “There are about eight people in our (fire) department that probably don’t even own guns.”

Pendleton has also had dual officers in the past, but Gardner said the last one finally decided to commit entirely to the police side because the responsibility of helping both departments was overwhelming.

“You’ve got to have time for life and family, too,” Gardner said.

Sunnyvale, Calif., has made a PSO program work. There is one public safety department, one dispatch center, and one job description: public safety officer. The PSO program has allowed that city to spend about half of what similar California communities spend on public safety per capita.

The Anderson Firefighters Union Local 1262 published a post on its Facebook page on Wednesday illuminating some differences between Sunnyvale and Anderson, including population, median household income and city budgets. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Anderson’s population in 2012 was estimated at 55,554, while Sunnyvale’s was 146,197.

Anderson Fire Chief Phil Rogers said he wants all the information available before he forms an opinion about PSOs. He said he recently had a meeting with Crenshaw about the possible merits of the program, but he’s still in the process of researching the idea.

“It’s something to look into. Here, you’ve got to think about saving money, and PSOs are one of the things that are out there,” Rogers said. “I’m not going to say I’m for or against it until we have all the information.”

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