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.
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."
A communications platform that gave all employees input became the biggest factor in the program's success, Vague adds. The organization began hosting department-wide meetings where employees received an opportunity to solve the problems they saw. When officers noted they lacked staffing at night, that police officer-medics were kept so busy they could not take time off, and medical calls were contributing to staffing shortages, supervisors revised schedules to address these issues.
"I think once people saw the process was genuine, their anxieties faded," Vague says. "Because when we really boiled it down — these cops trained as firefighters are still cops 90 percent of the time. But when something is burning, they can change hats and help us out with that."Cross-training benefits all
Everyone here has a clear and set role. Full-time firefighters work as firefighters and paramedics, but also conduct public education, maintain equipment, investigate fires and perform preplanned inspections. Police officers primarily carry out police duties, but some are also trained as medics while others are certified firefighters.
Officer-paramedics drive an "ER on wheels," says Vague. Everything is housed in a secure barrier in the squad car's backseat. An ambulance meets officers at the scene and transports patients to the hospital. Meanwhile, police officer-firefighters drive Chevy Tahoes carrying turnout gear and oxygen tanks. A locked area secures their firearms. When called to a fire, cop-firefighters drive to the scene, flip the back hatch, and don their fire gear.
Having police officer-firefighters helps the department meet its goal of putting five firefighters at a structure fire within 9 minutes. Vague explains: "We know fires grow at a specific rate, but if cop-firefighters are not on duty, the first people at the station must wait until five firefighters arrive to take out the first truck. If we know we already have two cop-firefighters on-scene, the first paid-on-calls or full-time firefighters can grab that truck and go. When they arrive, they are met by the cop-firefighters who've already changed into their gear and started a response."
Wallgren stresses the combination of adding more full-time firefighters and training police officers in firefighting has directly impacted agency response times. The city set a goal of having five firefighters on-scene within 9 minutes, 90 percent of the time, by 2010. In 2007, the department met this goal 75 percent of the time.
"We are hitting our numbers 75 percent of time, which is excellent, but we want 100 percent and we're all a little impatient," he says. "We've had to remind ourselves that this is a five-year process."Finding time to train
Cop-firefighters and cop-paramedics receive the exact same training as their counterparts in the fire department. To receive certification on the medic side, officers spend an entire year attending paramedic school full-time. Upon graduation, they return to the department for refresher officer training and on-the-job paramedic training.
The fire side does not require as much training, according to Vague. Officers typically obtain Firefighter I, Firefighter II and Hazmat certification within three months. Century College in neighboring Maplewood offers classes in the evenings, enabling officers to attend school while remaining in their police roles.
However, just as police must qualify annually on their firearms, firefighters and medics must continue to train. State law mandates firefighters receive 24 hours of continuing education every three years to maintain state certification. However, Woodbury requires firefighters and paramedics to obtain 12 hours of continuing education every quarter.
Supervisors incorporate training hours into the 171-hour, 28-day work schedule so officers can attend training without working overtime. The department offers training every Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, taking one week off, for a total of six training opportunities a month. Two of those six sessions focus on emergency medical-related instruction. Officers can attend the sessions that best fit their own schedules.
Additional training puts officers, paramedics and firefighters in the same room on a regular basis, and Vague calls that a good thing. "People understand each other better," he says. "There's more of a team atmosphere when you work and train together that much. And I think ultimately the people in our community get much better service because we work together a lot better than police and fire do in other places."
For those who raise their eyebrows and falsely believe Woodbury uses cops to do everything, Vague stresses this simply isn't true. "If we didn't have full-time firefighters and paid-on-call firefighters we absolutely could not get this job done. We are simply adding a third area to draw staff from when we need it the most."
Vague says Woodbury's citizens are the ultimate winners because when a call comes in, there is someone in the Woodbury Public Safety Department trained and ready for the challenge.