Commentary

01/17/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Sunnyvale: Making police and fire services interchangeable


in Sunnyvale, these men might also make arrests (Photo: Flickr/SunnyvaleRocks)

These are truly challenging times for local government. As cities are still adjusting to new a fiscal reality, not even sacred cows like police and fire departments are being spared from the budget knife. Police and fire protection oftentimes eat up the largest share of a city’s diminishing budget.

By 2011, three years into the economic crisis, nearly 30 percent of all California cities had no police department of their own, having opted instead to contract the County Sherriff for police services.

Looking to share costs, other cities are consolidating their police agencies. Beginning January 1 of this year the newly created Central Marin Police Authority will patrol the streets of San Anselmo, Twin Cities, Corte Madera, and Larkspur, after agreeing to merge their police forces last year.

And then there is the City of Sunnyvale, where they have successfully operated a fully-integrated Public Safety Department since 1950 (!). It's a unique model of service rarely practiced in the West which consolidates police, fire, and emergency medical services into one agency, and has recently garnered the attention of many cities exploring ways to cut costs.

If that wasn’t interesting enough, just wait, there’s more.

Can’t decide whether to become a police officer or a firefighter? Head to Sunnyvale; they don’t make you choose.

For over 60 years Sunnyvale has been cross-training all public safety personnel in the three disciplines of police, fire, and emergency medical services. This cross-training program is no joke; one Saturday CPR certification or fire safety class won’t cut it. Each public safety officer (PSOs) graduates from both a police and a fire academy, completes field training in both areas, and somehow in between is trained and certified as an EMT.

Cross-training is extended to include even people out of the field, like dispatchers who are trained to handle all police, fire, and medical emergency calls. 

Having just one headquarters, one set of staff and one dispatch center, is one reason why Public Safety Chief Frank Grgurina, who spent 23 years at a traditional police department before coming to Sunnyvale in 2011, says this model “works very well.” “Everybody understands the same language; they understand what the responsibilities are for the different positions.”

The benefits to this type of model are numerous, according to Grgurina. From improved efficiency to lower costs, all while maintaining a smaller staff, on average, than a conventional city of comparable size with three separate departments.

PSOs are expected to be able to jump from one discipline to the next, if needed, at any point on any given day. Patrol officers carry all their personal fire equipment as well as AEDs in the trunks of their patrol vehicles. “And as a result, we have quick response times and our save rate is very good,” explained Grgurina.

Despite the high cost of ongoing training, Grgurina asserts that Sunnyvale residents pay between $100 and $200 less per capita for public safety services than neighboring cities.

But converting to this model should not be viewed as an easy answer. Grgurina is quick to point out that the startup costs of training alone would be enormous. Several cities, like the central coast city of Marina, have actually reverted back to separate departments after experimenting with this type of consolidation.

Critics question PSOs ability to maintain technical expertise in all three disciplines and raise concerns around lower staffing levels in the fire bureau. Supporters argue that training is ongoing and fire staff is supplemented with patrol officers.

“A fully-integrated public safety department works very well here in the city of Sunnyvale and I think it could work in other places but it is certainly not a quick fix, it is a long term potential solution,” said Grgurina.

Struggling with dwindling resources, a growing number of California cities are contemplating creative ways to provide public safety services with improved efficiency at a reduced cost. The wide variety of public safety service models implemented in California, demonstrates that there is no one size fits all approach to municipal service consolidation. Finding the appropriate innovative but also pragmatic solution requires out of the box thinking and even a bit of chutzpah, as exhibited by Sunnyvale’s leaders more than half a century ago. 

Categories: Government

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