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Cross-training of public safety workers attracting more interest

In an era of deep municipal budget cuts, more cities are eyeing consolidation of police and fire departments. Sunnyvale, Calif., is a model.

January 01, 2013|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Sunnyvale cross-trained public safety officer Lt. James Anton loads his firefighting gear into the back of his patrol car at the beginning of his shift. All public safety officers in Sunnyvale are cross-trained as police officers, firefighters and in emergency medical services.
Sunnyvale cross-trained public safety officer Lt. James Anton loads his… (Peter DaSilva, For The Times )

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A disgruntled employee had sprayed his workplace with gunfire — killing three and wounding six — before heading into this Silicon Valley community, shooting another innocent and then melting into a residential neighborhood.

There weren't enough patrol officers available to secure the search area. But commanders in Sunnyvale's Department of Public Safety were able to do what few across the country can: They called on a fire crew that was coming off duty to switch hats. The two dozen men and women stripped out of their turnouts and reached for their tactical vests, police uniforms and weapons to join the manhunt.

At a time of municipal budget crises, more cities are eyeing Sunnyvale's model of cross-training all sworn personnel in police, fire and emergency medical services. At least 130 now employ some form of public safety consolidation. Just in the last six months, Sunnyvale has been contacted by half a dozen entities that are looking into the idea, including Fairbanks, Alaska, two Southern California communities and a UC campus.

Since 1950, patrol officers here have been carrying fire gear and first aid kits in their black-and-whites, often arriving first at medical emergencies. Because assignments rotate, it's not unusual for fire crews to include a former homicide detective or crime scene specialist who can detect suspicious circumstances or begin processing evidence.

There is one headquarters, one administration and one dispatch center, so "everyone speaks the same language," said Public Safety Chief Frank Grgurina.

Although training costs are steep and constant, the blended functions allow Sunnyvale to spend less on public safety than surrounding communities do — $519 per capita compared with $683 in Mountain View and $950 in Palo Alto, according to the most recent data available.

"We do more with less people because we do it all," said Grgurina, who spent years at a conventional police department before taking the public safety helm last year. "I drank the Kool-Aid."

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When Sunnyvale first decided to cross-train its personnel, this was a town of 10,000 with a volunteer Fire Department. Now home to 140,000, it is the largest city known to have a fully integrated public safety department, said Jeremy M. Wilson of the University of Michigan, who has launched the first comprehensive study of the practice.


FOR THE RECORD:
This article incorrectly identifies Jeremy M. Wilson as being affiliated with the University of Michigan. He is associate director for research and an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.

Along with budgetary stresses, the shifting role of firefighters has been driving the trend. In 2010, departments nationwide responded to 43% fewer fires than in 1983, while medical aid calls increased 260% over roughly the same period, according to Wilson's research. Meanwhile, the number of career firefighters increased by 48%.

That has meant more "ready stand-down time," as well as sending costly fire rigs out on medical calls.

In Sunnyvale, trucks and engines are staffed with two firefighters — compared with three at most traditional departments, said James Bouziane, deputy chief of fire services. On a one-alarm blaze, a dozen firefighters are dispatched, joined at the scene by six patrol officers who pull on fire gear. A two-alarm fire ups the count.

The benefits of the system are undeniable.

On medical calls, patrol officers often arrive first. Last year, records show, they saved seven lives through defibrillation.

In an instance in August, suspects pistol-whipped a robbery victim and then set their getaway vehicle on fire in an underground garage in an attempt to divert officers. Normal protocol would have firefighters stand down until officers secured the scene. But here, they fought the blaze while their patrol counterparts in fire masks stood guard with AR-15s.

"We trust each other," said Dayton Pang, deputy chief of patrol services.

Most of the public safety department's 195 sworn officers submit a preference annually for their next assignment, although detectives remain on the job for five years before they're asked to switch to fire. There is little turnover, Lt. James Anton said.

"You go from robbery/homicide and the next day, you're in the firehouse cleaning toilets," said Anton, who will move to fire duty in February.

On a recent day, he loaded fire gear into the back of his patrol car to begin his shift. On a laptop, he tracked personnel by toggling between police and fire screens. Also at his fingertips are maps of the interior of every structure, completed for fire suppression planning but invaluable in policing.

An accident call sent him speeding to Sunnyvale's downtown post office, where a driver had put her SUV into reverse while mistakenly gunning the gas, injuring a woman in a parked car. Firefighters had not yet arrived when Anton got there, but another patrol officer had.

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