The Herald Bulletin

August 14, 2013

Editorial: Unified public safety force worth considering

— “That’s the way it’s always been done.”

Such inherently flawed reasoning is often used as an off-the-cuff justification for antiquated processes.

Now more than ever, local government can’t afford that sort of in-the-box thinking. In most Madison County area communities, tax dollars are dwindling, and local officials are compelled to look for better, more efficient ways to use funds while still providing important services.

In an Aug. 4 article published in The Herald Bulletin, Anderson Police Chief Larry Crenshaw espoused an idea whose time may well be at hand. He suggests that local officials consider combining police and fire forces to create a unified public safety force. Crenshaw noted that more than 130 communities across the United States have adopted some variation of a public safety force program.

The local implementation of such a program could range from a fully unified force, wherein no distinction between firefighters and police officers exists, to a more modest adaptation wherein police officers and firefighters are cross trained to handle specific tasks, such as writing traffic tickets or assisting at the scene of a fire.

The full integration of firefighters and police officers would probably reap the largest financial savings for local forces. In Sunnyvale, Calif., the municipality adopted a unified public safety force and reportedly spends about half of what other, similar-sized California communities spend for police and fire services.

That sounds great, but there is an important caveat: Patrolling as a policeman and fighting fires are two very different tasks, each requiring extensive, detailed and focused training. Would the quality of policing and firefighting suffer if public safety officers were required to do both?

Given the uncertainty of that proposition, it would make sense to start with a more cautious approach of cross training for specific tasks. If that worked well, then the program could be accelerated for further cross training and, perhaps eventually, a fully unified public safety force.

Crenshaw and some other local police chiefs have expressed a willingness to consider unification with fire departments. Despite official opposition to such programs from the International Association of Firefighters, hopefully, local fire chiefs would be open-minded about the possibility, as well.

The Anderson Fire Department has taken cost-cutting measures this year, including the closing of a station. Last year, police and fire department cuts were a major source of conflict between the mayor’s office, the union and others. The budgeting process will begin in earnest again soon, and new and creative approaches should be taken to figure out how to address community needs while dealing with declining tax revenue.

A local study of the benefits and drawbacks of a unified public safety program is in order, provided that the study not be too expensive.

Such a study could help the community determine whether police-fire cross training can be a good solution for current needs and economic conditions.