Trend alert: Police and fire department mergers

Budget constraints and layoffs are plaguing many metro's police and fire departments. As a result, many cities are looking into new ways to reduce operating costs. One of the ideas on the table and considered by more than a few cities is the merging of fire and police departments.

New Jersey city merges police and fire department
In July 2013, the Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Steven Fulop decided to introduce a measure that would establish a Department of Safety, which would essentially merge the city's police and fire departments. Emergency Management Magazine reported that both of the agencies are cash strapped and looking for new ways to reduce operating expenses.

The idea is highly controversial and is expected to save the city $1.8 million by 2017. According to the news source, most of the savings will come from cross-training police officers in police and firefighter duties.

The Jersey Journal reported that voting for the merger is expected to happen at the city council's meeting on August 28. Fulop has asked veteran New York police officer James Shea to lead the Public Safety Department.

Are police and fire departments merging the new trend?
Emergency Management Magazine reported that only 128 jurisdictions have merged police and fire departments out of the more than 18,000 agencies in the U.S. Three other major cities in the nation have merged police and fire operations – cutting costs by $17 million per year. 

A Michigan State University study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has found that other nations such as England, Canada and Japan have fewer than 100 state and local law enforcement agencies due to consolidation efforts. The decrease in the number of police and fire departments has allowed overall national budgets to remain substantially less than counterparts here in the U.S. MSU has created a resource for local officials who are thinking about merging fire and police departments for operational efficiency. 

"Communities are looking for solutions, but there are very few resources out there to guide them through the different options," said Jeremy Wilson, program director and associate professor of criminal justice, according to the source. "This program is exciting because if offers a whole series of projects aimed specifically at developing those resources. We also have several analysis under way looking at contracting costs and benefits, media coverage of consolidation, use of non-sworn staff, labor-management issues and resident satisfaction."

Michigan has the greatest number of merged police and fire departments in the nation, according to the study, with 57. Other cities have also found benefits with merging both agencies, including Sunnyvale, California, where all 195 public safety officers are cross-trained to fight fires and crime.

"There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the practice of consolidated public safety service," Sunnyvale's public safety chief, Frank Grgurina told the source. But the MSU program, he said, "delivers objective, field-tested and evidence-based research for law enforcement, fire services and other officials to consider in determining the best approach for their specific communities."

How will merging impact efficiency and readiness?
As expected, a merger between fire and police department to create one public safety agency would initially cause confusion. Advanced training exercises would be necessary so that personnel would be able to handle the various cross-disciplinary tasks required to do both the fire and enforcement aspects of the job. However, a merger could significantly reduce costs and improve a city's public safety professionals' readiness. The merger between two large departments requires disciplined data and training tracking as well. With safety on the line and such transitions occurring, leaders must be aware of who's trained for what task and maintain legally defensible records.

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