The city appointed a task force of citizens, public safety department officials and city government representatives to devise a solution that made sense for all disciplines. The group decided to hire 16 law enforcement officers to handle the growing influx of police calls, but determined these officers would also cross-train as firefighters. No one would be trained as a cop, firefighter and paramedic, rather officers would be certified as either cop-firefighters or cop-paramedics.
"The theory was we already have police officers out there on the streets, why not put fire gear on them?" says John Wallgren, commander of Woodbury's fire division. "This way, for the handful of occasions each year where we have a big structure fire, we can get people on-scene in short order."
Since 2005, 12 of Woodbury's 63 officers have attained firefighter certification, and four more will be hired and trained by 2010. Applicants learn if they are hired as a police officer, they may be asked to undergo paramedic or fire training. "That's part of the deal when you sign," Wallgren says. "Not everyone who goes through police training wants to be a firefighter or a paramedic. We understand that. But we want to make sure we hire people willing to do both."
When hiring is complete, the agency will have sufficient staffing to fully implement the cop-firefighter program, which means officer-firefighters will be working every shift. "Right now there are some shifts where we don't have this coverage because everyone isn't trained yet," Vague explains.Garnering support
Boundaries between police and fire officials have always existed, but for a program like this to exist, these walls have to come down. Forming a public safety department was only the first step in this process. The move combined budgets and eliminated the competition between public safety entities for the same tax dollars. It also unified support services for better efficiency and cost savings. But when task force officials first proposed blending police and fire roles, Wallgren says they faced strong opposition "Some people were very resistant, cautious or concerned," he says. "They asked: How are you planning to do this? What is going to happen? Who will be in charge of me?"
According to Maklad, successful cross-training programs first garner line officer support. "You have to sell officers on the idea before you go any farther," he explains, adding that it's critical to present as much information as possible, clarifying what changes to expect and how police roles may change. "I was concerned about its impact on my patrol duties," he recalls. "I wondered if I'd be pulled off calls all the time. For the most part, our response averages 12 fire calls a year. It doesn't affect my patrol activity that much."
Some police officers expressed concern because of the staffing issues caused by the police-paramedic program. Vague says he was one of those people. "A lot of us asked, 'How can we take on a third role when we're not fully comfortable with the second one?' " he recalls. "We realized we had to correct the police-paramedic staffing issue first; that took us a couple of years."
POC firefighters also feared the department planned to eliminate their positions. Task force officials stressed the change was designed to make the department more efficient and effective, and emphasized eliminating staff was not part of the strategy. "Full-time firefighters, paid-on-calls and police officers still have specific roles to fill. But now we work and train together to be more responsive to the people we serve," Wallgren says.
The primary message had to be that the department needed police officers, firefighters and support service people, and that all sections needed to grow in spite of economic conditions and budgetary constraints. According to Wallgren, employees quickly understood the department would not hire more police officers if the agency added firefighters, or vice versa, because the money came out of the same budget. "We educated them enough so that they understood the situation we were in," he says. "Everyone understood they needed to put the department ahead of themselves."