WHO YOU gonna call?

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


     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."

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