5 reasons not to merge fire and police

To best serve their communities, firefighters must concentrate on the work of being a firefighter

When fire and rescue departments are directed to provide enforcement services (beyond fire prevention functions) or other related police duties, fire service leaders should cringe.

There are a multitude of examples where communities have fused the police and fire departments into one public safety agency. The motivating logic seems to be that neither department is busy enough to command the tax share needed to operate separate agency.

The initial belief is that merging two costly departments into one will create a more efficient department, thereby saving big public bucks.

To the untrained administrator this is a very inviting proposition. The merger becomes a trail-blazing and leading-edge idea as how to organize local government into a leaner, more functional service.

However, the transition of police duties into the fire and rescue department comes at a steep price that you will not find on a budget line-item spreadsheet. Intangibles such as organizational stress, personnel resistance and demoralization of the rank-and-file members of both departments are the major factors that will ensure this type of plan's failure.

In fact, many public safety officer departments that have re-established two separate agencies.

Here are several reasons why the cost reductions are generally not worth the efforts it takes to merge a fire and police department into one service.

Level of responsibility
The duties and responsibilities of a modern day firefighter are many and diverse. The public expects firefighters to provide pre-hospital emergency medical care in a way that positive results are possible.

When not responding to emergency medical alarms, firefighters are expected to be the first line of defense to protect communities against hazardous material releases of all types.

Add to these two critical fields of service, technical rescue technicians to remove people trapped in automobiles or similar predicaments. That leaves the requirement to properly and quickly extinguish unwanted fires in the community.

We all know that it takes a lot of time and training to handle these areas of expertise. This manipulative and complicated type of training, must be updated and refreshed regularly.

So, the question that begs answering is, can an employee learn and maintain the necessary skills for one complicated discipline and learn to function within another equally complicated community-safety discipline?

Based on the job responsibilities and measurable need to be trained to keep abreast of the job requirements, it is unlikely a person could do both effectively.

Hours in the day
There is a lot of preparation work required every single duty shift in order to provide a reliable and quick response to alarms. All apparatus and associated equipment must have surveillance checks performed each day and after every use.

The day that these comprehensive checks are not performed is the day that something like the water tank was left partially filled. This can be embarrassing and potentially deadly for both the members and the customers, with the organization's liability rising sharply (wasting more taxpayer dollars).

Couple that with the need for time for physical fitness and it is apparent that there will not be enough time left in a workday to take on many other tasks.

It may become necessary to complete some of the added duties working an overtime shift or two, thereby spoiling the tax-dollar savings that this type of program is designed to do in the first place.

Large-scale events
What happens when all hell breaks loose and there are not enough police officers and firefighters to go around? For D.C., one of those events happened on June 29, 2009 when the Metrorail Redline commuter train crashed causing nine fatalities and more than 50 injuries.

That community required hundreds of firefighters and police officers to perform their duties at the same place and time. The horrible tragedy in Aurora, Colo., is another example of when the community needs as many firefighters and police officers as it can afford.

In just about every major event there is always a need to call first responders back from their homes to provide additional operational staff and to cover the rest of the community's needs during a large-scale event. That type of protection coverage and response can only be accomplished with trained and qualified first responders.

Merging fire and police jobs to cut positions and costs will be debilitating on the days that the rubber meets the road and the community needs a lot of help quickly.

Gun control
Typically, on-duty firefighters and guns do not mix well. I have had a series of issues created by allowing members of the fire department to wear guns.

The first souring incident was when a fire marshal wore his investigator side arm to a basketball tournament. The event had become so popular that overcrowding was a significant issue for the fire department to control during the game.

With all of the best intensions, the fire investigator made it clear to the overly enthusiastic sports crowd that he was wearing a side arm. This was not taken lightly by those attending the game — apologies were demanded and presented soon after this event.

In another community, I had to deal with alleged extortion attempts by the fire investigator with a pistol that the fire department had provided.

Finally, during a murder trial where arson was used to cover the crime, the fire department was asked to provide the handgun used in the killing. The event had occurred about seven years prior. The weapon had been long since lost and we were unable to provide a huge piece of material evidence.

When asked why we had control over this type of criminal evidence in the first place, the answer was that we had sworn police officers (fire investigators) who collected arson evidence. All evidence collection and storage was turned over to the police department shortly after this case.

Prevention, inspection and education
The last job elements that must be considered are mission-critical programs such as public education, fire and event planning, fire hydrant flush testing and fire inspection duties. The best fire or medical call that a department can respond to is the one that the fire department was able to prevent — no call, no hazard, no harm to anyone.

Most senior government executives want hard data that are clear indicators of dollar savings to prove that these prevention programs are working. Sometimes that kind of information is not easy to obtain.

During my watch in Washington, the DCFD members reduced the fire deaths in one year from 21 to just seven the following year.

We celebrated this 66 2/3 percent reduction and made plans to significantly increase the smoke detector installation and public education efforts. The expressed goal was zero fire fatalities in the next year.

However, city council members overseeing public safety cut all of the smoke detector program funding ($250,000). In a just few short months, six persons died in one house fire.

D.C. ended that year with more than 20 fire fatalities — so much for prevention measurements having a real value in the political world.

A leadership issue
After a review of all of the duties and responsibilities that firefighters have, it is not possible to perform other duties such as police enforcement activities. Further, there should not be time to manufacture items such as garbage cans or perform unrelated activities such as grave digging services (these functions are from actual fire department case studies).

It is time for the fire and rescue service leadership to ensure that the required critical tasks are being performed properly and completely. If the leaders do their job correctly, there cannot be a lot of discretionary time leftover to carry a gun or a ticket book.

The fire department bosses must take the responsibility to alert the political and economic leaders of the community as to what the firefighters should be doing to protect the community.

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