Inter-agency collaboration solves staffing challenge in Idaho region

To deal with the natural uptick in calls that comes with population growth, they find new ways to work with their neighbors


Gretel Kauffman
The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

TWIN FALLS — Public safety agencies in the Magic Valley are relying more heavily on a valuable tool: each other.

The Twin Falls Fire Department, Police Department, and Sheriff’s Office are putting a new emphasis on inter-agency collaboration, city officials say.

The Twin Falls Fire Department, Police Department, and Sheriff’s Office are putting a new emphasis on inter-agency collaboration, city officials say. (Photo/Twin Falls Fire & Rescue)
The Twin Falls Fire Department, Police Department, and Sheriff’s Office are putting a new emphasis on inter-agency collaboration, city officials say. (Photo/Twin Falls Fire & Rescue)

It’s largely a development born of necessity. Twin Falls is an increasingly popular destination for visitors from around the south-central Idaho region and elsewhere seeking outdoor and indoor recreation opportunities. But the city itself isn’t actually growing that quickly: The average rate of population growth in recent years has been just under 2 percent, a much lower rate than the city saw a decade ago.

The heads of these agencies say they don’t have the intention — or the resources — to hire new staff en masse anytime soon. Instead, to deal with the natural uptick in calls that comes with population growth, they’re making the most of what they have by finding new ways to work with their neighbors.

Brian Pike, former police chief and current deputy city manager for public safety in Twin Falls, sees the shift as a departure from the ideology of rugged individualism that has characterized south-central Idaho — and policing here — in the past.

“That sense of independence is a part of our Idaho heritage, and I don’t think we’re ever going to lose that,” Pike said. “But we’ve also been willing to realize that no one is able to make it on their own.”

Fire

The Twin Falls Fire Department hasn’t increased its staff count since the 1970s. That hasn’t presented a major problem until recently, Chief Les Kenworthy said, because the growth of the city hasn’t had a significant effect on the number of calls the department receives.

Two years ago, however, the department added EMS to their services — and saw their calls skyrocket.

Before adding EMS, TFFD received about 1,900 calls per year.

In 2017, the first full year that EMS services were in effect, the department received nearly 5,500 calls, city spokesman Josh Palmer said. About 3,800 of those calls were EMS-related.

EMS, combined with other specialized services that the department began offering in recent decades, means that the 39 firefighters in Twin Falls today are going through more extensive training — and shouldering a heavier workload overall — than the 39 firefighters in Twin Falls 40 years ago.

“We’re struggling, to be honest,” Kenworthy said. “We need more staffing. So far we’re doing okay, but it’s tough. It’s a big workload.”

Complicating the matter is the city’s position as a regional hub of a rural area. Because the Twin Falls Fire Department is the only fully-staffed, full-time department for miles around, it offers certain kinds of specialized expertise that nearby cities don’t have.

The department does hope to expand its personnel and resources over the next few years, Kenworthy said. He’s applied for a federal grant to hire five more employees, and a recent study suggested that it might be in the department’s best interest to build an additional fire station in the northeast part of town in the coming years – a development that would also require additional staffing.

But Kenworthy, who joined the department as chief in March, is also bringing a new focus on collaboration with other departments in the region, including Buhl, Filer, Jerome, Rock Creek, Salmon Tract, and Castleford.

Working together doesn’t just benefit the smaller departments, he emphasized. It also helps out Twin Falls.

Already, the strategy has paid off: Three fires simultaneously popped up around the city on July 4, and the department didn’t have the manpower to handle on its own. They called for backup, which swiftly arrived to lend a hand.

“Because of our growth...working more regional is kind of the way of the future,” Kenworthy said. “The idea of a regional approach to things and how we can help each other works both ways and makes all the sense in the world.”

Policing

Despite some uptick in calls for service, the Twin Falls Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have plans to hire a lot of new deputies anytime soon, Sheriff Tom Carter said. In the first six months of 2018, the office received about 2,400 more calls than it did in the first six months of 2015.

The office is working on a grant to hire two more patrolmen. But the workload facing deputies isn’t Carter’s top priority right now.

Instead, he said, his focus is on addressing crowding in the county jail, a situation that Carter describes as a “crisis.” The 224-bed facility held 248 inmates on July 13, with about 50 others housed in other jails across the state.

“The patrol deputies can keep up with the call level,” Carter said. “As long as we can answer calls, I’m not going to go to the taxpayers and ask for more money for more personnel.”

The Twin Falls Police Department, like the fire department, has seen an increase in calls for service in recent years. The department received 58,655 calls in 2017, about a 7 percent increase from the previous year.

TFPD has added four new officers since 2016, bringing the total up to 77, but doesn’t anticipate dramatically expanding its workforce in the coming years, Chief Craig Kingsbury said.

Instead, Kingsbury said, the department is asking how it can “police a little bit smarter.”

“What we’re trying to do now as we look forward to what’s next: we want to make sure we’re utilizing our resources in the proper way,” Kingsbury said. “How are we allocating our officers? How are we allocating our personnel? And is that the best way to serve our community?”

Exploring ways to increase the department’s efficiency includes experimenting with various setups and strategies for policing, such as different patrol shifts. It also means looking for opportunities to collaborate with the sheriff’s office and other agencies.

A new special investigations unit is the result of an interagency partnership between the Twin Falls Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. The seven-detective unit targets repeat violent offenders throughout Twin Falls County, such as people who illegally own firearms or those who are involved in organized criminal or gang activity.

Twin Falls City Manager Travis Rothweiler described the collaborative nature of the special investigations unit as a more effective way to police the area.

“We recognize that there is a migratory trend, and if we can work crime where crime is occurring, we’ll have greater success than just trying to fortify our own borders,” Rothweiler said. “That does not work in the area of policing.”

That hasn’t always been the mindset in the Twin Falls Police Department, noted Pike, who served as police chief from 2011 to 2014 after 17 years with the department.

“When I started here as a police officer, we were, as a law enforcement agency, an island…and I think that was probably true of the city in and of itself,” Pike said. “If you went back 20 years ago, it was a mentality. If you fast forward to today, we’ve realized that we’re a regional player.”

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©2018 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)

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