WHO YOU gonna call?

Woodbury Public Safety Department answers this question by cross-training police officers as either firefighters or paramedics


     If there's someone strange, in your neighborhood …

     Who you gonna call?

     If something's on fire, and it don't look good …

     Who you gonna call?

     If you're feeling pain, running through your chest …

     Who can you call?

     In Woodbury, citizens might call on a crime-busting, fire-dousing police officer or a crime-busting, medical-fixing cop. The Woodbury Public Safety Department is the only Minnesota agency where on-duty police officers fight crimes, put out fires and respond to medical emergencies.

     "Officers are generally there anyway," Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague explains of the move to train officers as either cop-paramedics or cop-firefighters. "I think our officers appreciate that they can actually do the right things now when they go to fire or EMS calls."

     Omar Maklad, one of Woodbury's first police officer-firefighters, agrees. He recalls feeling powerless at a house fire approximately five years ago. At that time, none of the agency's officers had taken fire training.

     A neighbor had rescued one of the home's residents, who had been badly burned. This individual informed responding officers that several other family members remained trapped in the residence. Maklad and the other officers carried out two adults from the home's lower level then tried in vain to rescue a child on the second floor. Firefighters arrived and pulled the tot from the upper level. However, all three individuals died the following day.

     "Would this training have changed the outcome of this situation? I don't know," says Maklad. "But it sure would have helped our efforts when trying to rescue those remaining in the home."

New beginnings

     The move to cross-train police officials began in the mid-1990s as the city combined its fire and police agencies to form a single public safety department. "I know a lot of places do that," says Vague. "But I think there is a difference between 'saying' you're a public safety department and 'becoming' one." In Woodbury, it is more than lip service. Soon after its formation, this department began cross-training police officers and firefighters as paramedics (prior to this firefighters were trained to offer basic life support). Though it took a little time to raise staffing to comfortable levels, Vague says the program quickly experienced success.

     "Our city has a population of approximately 60,000," he says. "And it's a really great city to have a heart attack in — we have an amazing save rate. I think a big piece of that is because we have police officers trained as paramedics."

     With a successful cop-paramedic program under its belt, the combined department found itself at a crossroads again, this time on the fire side, where the department required a crew of five firefighters on a truck before it left the station, and city officials found these crews were not always arriving quickly enough.

     Vague says the fire division operates with 12 full-time and 80 paid-on-call (POC) firefighters. And though the POC firefighters do a "wonderful job," Vague explains most have day jobs and cannot always make it to every call. During the day, the fire division often had difficulty quickly assembling a five-man crew. The agency faced a tough decision. Should it continue on a more traditional path and hire more full-time firefighters, or try something new and less conventional?

     "It just didn't make sense to hire more firefighters," Vague emphasizes. "We simply didn't have the call volume to support it." He explains the agency receives approximately 700 fire calls a year and of that amount, only a dozen or so are for large structure fires. In contrast, the agency receives 2,000 EMS calls annually and 29,000 calls for police service.

     As the need to increase fire staffing arose, the police side began feeling growing pains of its own and sought to add officers. The police-paramedic program had strained its resources as officer-medics were being called out of the field for cardiac arrest or advance life support emergencies.

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