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Fighting fire better, from manpower to money

Rockford is up against same dilemma confronting communities across Michigan: Too many expenses and not enough revenue. Police, fire and public works consume about 70 percent of the budget in this city of 5,700 in northern Kent County.

So why not combine all these functions into a single department?

Public safety departments providing police and fire service are not new inMichigan. Indeed, Grosse Pointe Shores claims its 1911 merger of police and fire functions was first in the nation. And there are approximately 50 public safety departments in Michigan.

But few anywhere combine police, fire and public works.

"We looked around and asked ourselves what resources do we have," said City Manager Michael Young. "We have cops out there and we have public works employees out there. They are all out on the street all the time and they are in the best position to respond."

Young said he received "flaming" emails from firefighters in neighboring departments, asking him just what makes him think a public works employee could be a firefighter. He termed such criticism "parochial thinking. You look at every department in Michigant hat has paid on-call firefighters. These guys all have different jobs during the day. It is a hollow argument."

In Rockford, public works employees are now cross-trained as firefighters and medical first responders. Police officers will continue to respond to police calls and are trained to handle fires and medical emergencies. The city has eliminated four full-time firefighters at an estimated savings of $210,000 a year, or about 7 percent of the general fund budget.

Young believes fiscal pressures will force other municipalities to consider similar moves:

"I think every community is going to look at how they provide public safety."

East Grand Rapids completed its own transition to a public safety department in 1986. Prior to the move, it employed a total of 40 police officers and firefighters. It now has 29 public safety officers, at an estimated annual savings of $1 million. Public safety takes up about 42 percent of the city's budget, below the portion found in many municipalities.

Mark Herald, director of public safety, was a patrol police officer in Grand Rapids when the transition began.

"I wondered why they were trying this crazy idea," he said.

Herald is a believer now, saying the arrangement gives him flexibility to deploy manpower where needed:

"You can put more bodies on the ground."

East Grand Rapids public safety officers work 24-hour shifts, with eight hours as a police officer, eight hours as a firefighter and eight hours of sleep. They are cross-trained as police officers, firefighters and medical first responders.

When there is a fire call, more often than not first on the scene are public safety officers in a cruiser. They keep firefighting gear in the trunk at all times. Firefighting trucks follow if needed.

In 2009, public safety officer Kelly Kreiner responded to a fire call and was on scene in a cruiser in under two minutes. He encountered a two-story house engulfed in fire with one resident on the roof and two trapped inside. Without taking time to put on firefighting gear, Kreiner entered the house and pulled out a 25-year-old resident who had collapsed and was disoriented by the smoke.

"If that is a traditional fire department, that guy is dead," Herald said.

Herald said public safety officers on scene in cruisers douse a lot of small fires with extinguishers, even before fire trucks arrive. In other cases, they get to the scene and cancel the trucks.

"It saves money. They say, 'Slow down, we got it.' That happens a lot," Herald said.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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