Public Safety Consolidation: Does it Make Sense?
By Brandon S. Morley, M.S.Ed., and Jeffery M. Hadley, M.S.
Public safety consolidation unites police, fire, and emergency medical services into a single unit. Various types of mergers exist, some involving only two of the three organizations. Advocates refer to increased savings and improved coverage as reasons for combining. Opponents say that it costs jobs and decreases security.
Consolidated public safety services existed in ancient Rome. After a fire in the city in 6 C.E., the Roman emperor shifted firefighting responsibility from bands of slaves called familia publica to a new unit of freedmen known as vigiles or vigiles urbani—city watchmen. The army was barred from the city limits, and Rome had no police force, so the vigiles also became law enforcement officers.
By day the vigiles served as police officers, and at night, when most fires occurred, they functioned as fire-response crews. After six years of service in the vigiles urbani, a freedman was eligible to become a citizen, a highly desirable status that resulted in upward social mobility.1
Public safety consolidation continued for centuries throughout Europe. Today partial consolidations exist, while fully integrated services remain scarce. In Great Britain combined police and fire responsibilities were the norm until World War II. Nazi bombings of London forced the nationalization and separation of law enforcement from fire protection. Germany and Japan maintained united services throughout the war, after which the allies deemed it undesirable to have police officers working as firefighters and subsequently separated the two.2
Consolidated services exist in North America, some dating back more than a century. In 1911 Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, created the first department of public safety in the United States by combining police and fire departments. By including paramedic services, this became the first community to triple-train its public safety officers.3
Today Michigan has more consolidated departments than any other state. It provides organizational models across the United States and to foreign countries. For example in February 2011 an 11-member delegation from Sweden toured the state, examining these paradigms.4
Five types of public safety consolidation commonly are identified.
- Full amalgamation combines administrative and operational activities of police and fire departments. Often this includes emergency medical services. Extensive cross-training is essential to its success.
- Administrative, or nominal, merging enables police and fire departments to remain as separate entities with combined organizational oversight.
- Selected geographic consolidation unites public safety services within designated urban areas where service demands are low while maintaining separate agencies in high-demand regions.
- Functional consolidation blends administrative services with a limited number of operational activities.
- Partial integration is more advanced and involves merging of operational functions.5
Two additional categories occasionally are recognized.
- Merge consolidation involves a large department absorbing a smaller one to form a single entity.
- Operational merging maintains legally separate organizations that unite for administrative and operational purposes and service delivery.6
Consolidation works best when based on the community’s character, composition, size, geographic location, and existing programs. Disaster planning; emergency preparedness; public demand; local control, efficiency, and effectiveness; and anticipated public safety issues constitute key considerations. Local governments must evaluate their ability to pay for services, potential stressors of the system, and the community’s history of natural disasters.7
In 2010 Walker, Michigan, with a population of 23,537, considered a new organizational structure for its police and fire departments. The fire subcommittee reported that it did not recommend the creation of public safety officers. The proposed nominal consolidation was to provide management accountability while preserving the technical expertise of existing police and fire staffs.8
Upon the fire chief’s retirement, Walker city leaders eliminated the position, created a consolidated position, and appointed the police chief as public safety director. The deputy fire chief became the assistant director for fire operations, and the police captain switched to assistant director for police operations.
In the 2010 police department report, the public safety director indicated difficulties due to layoffs and unfilled positions, but made positive comments regarding administrative consolidation. The 2010 fire department report was similarly affirmative.9
In the late 1970s, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, consolidated fully. The Citizens Research Council of Michigan recommended the merger in July 1976. The council’s executive director indicated that combining police and fire services was feasible and could improve assistance at a reduced cost.10
According to the 2011 Public Safety Annual Report, full consolidation continues to serve the Grosse Pointe community well.11 The merged public safety force responses increased 5 percent to 5,322 for police service calls in 2010. Firefighting activity increased slightly in 2011. Out of 386 calls, actual fires comprised a small number, with only five reported monetary losses of $500 or more.12 In 2009 Grosse Pointe arranged with a transportation company to provide ambulance service, thus, adding medic and advanced life support units. In 2011 citizens made over 188 ambulance requests, and the average response time was just four minutes.13
These examples involve small, suburban communities; however, combining services also makes sense in larger urban settings. A recent International City/County Management Association (ICMA) article identified a regional government approach as another type of consolidation. The director of research and public safety programs at the ICMA Center for Public Safety Management indicated that integration reduces costs and improves operations. This may mean consolidating local governments to form regional ones. This already has occurred in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.14
Indianapolis created a department of public safety that, according to its 2012 report, will remain a national model by integrating the police, fire, homeland security, animal care and control, and communications divisions into one department. This structure increases operational effectiveness by leveraging the strengths of the individual sections. Each division has its own operational goals and unique personalities.15 Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County comprise a consolidated administrative unit governed by a city/county council known as Unigov. Established in 1970 this body merged city and county governments. Walker, Grosse Pointe, and Indianapolis provide examples of three different types of consolidation.
Pros and Cons
“Advocates refer to increased savings and improved coverage as reasons for combining. Opponents say it costs jobs and decreases security.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) oppose merging police and fire services. These organizations produced a guide to assist community members in countering public safety consolidation attempts.16 They base the rationale for this opposition on the potential reduction of firefighters. The IAFF and the IAFC also give other reasons.
- Fire safety programs are neglected. Mergers and downsizing reduce the frequency and effectiveness of safety inspections, preattack planning, public education, in-service training, and emergency medical services.
- Public safety consolidation can be costly. Loftier wages, increased pension costs, and higher cross-training expenses result.17
- Low morale occurs. Mergers involving priority shifts, personnel cuts, and other disruptive events result in low morale and high personnel turnover.
- Inadequate training and personnel development ensue. The IAFF and IAFC contend that cities with public safety offices suffer training lapses, resulting in deterioration of skills and loss of ability for individuals to fulfill dual roles as law enforcement officers and firefighters.18
- Ineffective on-the-job experience emerges. Cross-trained personnel often fail to get experience in their secondary field, which, according to the IAFF/IAFC, usually is firefighting.19
- Loss of a firefighting team concept sometimes occurs. Lack of experience reduces efficiency and group cohesion.
- Role conflicts may arise. Confusion and conflict result when personnel constantly switch roles.
- Consolidation may result in faulty planning and insufficient goals. The IAFF and IAFC contend that in most consolidations planning is inadequate or nonexistent.20
- Consolidated departments cannot keep up with service demands. For large communities consolidated departments often are too lean.
Often, little evidence supports an anticonsolidation agenda. In the 1970s when Grosse Pointe was considering consolidation, the Citizens Research Council (CRC) presented seven arguments against the program to demonstrate how easily they could be refuted.
- The pressure of simultaneous incidents would make deployment of public safety officers difficult.
- Delays in activating forces could result in loss of life and property.
- Insurance rates would increase.
- An employee cannot learn to do two jobs.
- The level of expertise would decrease due to different services offered and specialized training required by police and firefighters.
- Conflict would erupt between police- and fire-oriented personnel. Firefighters focus on mechanical and technical aspects, while police officers deal with psychological and personal issues.
- A loss of teamwork would result. Because firefighting requires closely coordinated cooperation, fire companies train, live, and work together.21
The council refuted the seven arguments based upon the Grosse Pointe model. It offered numerous counterarguments.
- Better use of on-duty time increases manpower for initial responses.
- Faster reaction times can be relied upon. Studies have shown that patrol officers usually arrive at a fire scene before firefighting equipment.
- Consolidation results in a single chain of command with a better authority structure and allocation of resources.
- With persons trained in police and fire functions, more individuals could be recalled in emergencies.
- Improved prevention programs are possible. With increased patrols, cities can emphasize crime- and fire-prevention inspections to a greater degree.
- A single records system providing comprehensive data on emergencies provides better manpower control and systems support.
- A combined personnel structure makes recruiting and selection procedures less arduous and costly. This provides a better means of building careers, resulting in improved morale and more fully developed individual capacity. There would be less boredom and greater feelings of achievement. Higher pay from more diversified duties and greater efficiency from productive service would result.
- Consolidation incorporates one basic bargaining unit.
- Fewer problems would result for public safety employees in the implementation of the National Fair Labor Standards Act.22
Fiscal savings, greater efficiency, and better coordination of services constitute the basis of the CRC report.
“Such a program is reasonable if certain circumstances prevail; however, not every community meets the requirements.”
Does public safety consolidation make sense? Such a program is reasonable if certain circumstances prevail; however, not every community meets the requirements. Consolidation is feasible in small communities, but may be less workable in larger ones.
Modified types of police and fire service mergers work well in certain settings. Communities seeking guidance on consolidation can find information in community reports on the Internet. A citizen task force or a consultant to study the community’s needs and resources prove valuable when contemplating a merger.
An ICMA Management Information Service report from the 1990s entitled Forecasting the Outcome of Police/Fire Consolidations remains useful.23 This document defines the issues surrounding consolidation, identifies key decisions that communities will need to make, and offers guidance for assessing and overcoming environmental barriers. The report’s most useful feature is the authors’ mathematical model for predicting the effect of consolidation on costs and performance of police and fire services.
The driving force toward consolidation is the opportunity to decrease funding. Fire, police, and emergency medical services usually are a local government’s biggest expenses and raise the most difficult management issues. Merging offers valuable opportunities to reduce spending. The concept provides an alternative for local government managers and elected officials who face demands for more services from communities resistant to paying higher taxes.24
The critical need for communities to coordinate their responses to emergencies is almost as prominent as economizing. “Because of terrorism, police and fire departments today see their roles differently than they did 15 years ago. As the first responders to potential terrorist attacks with a significant responsibility to prevent such attacks from occurring, local police and fire agencies now have a much heavier workload. In light of these changing conditions and increased demands, the public safety concept may be more attractive than ever before….”25
Program consolidation makes sense for most communities. Fiscal responsibility and increased community security require more effective police, fire, and emergency medical coordination. In a post-9/11 world, public safety must be a primary concern.
“Modified types of police and fire services mergers work well in certain settings.”
Mr. Morley is a writer, editor, researcher, and an adjunct lecturer specializing in promoting access for students with special needs.
Mr. Hadley began his law enforcement career in 1991 and currently is the director of the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Department of Public Safety.
The authors wish to thank Professor Charles R. Forker, Indiana University, Bloomington, for his advice on the particulars of this article.