By Kelli Bennett
It’ll be hard for Bainbridge Public Safety Officer Jessica Matthews to forget the day her fire training kicked in while on a public safety call, allowing her to halt a possible housefire. Matthews and fellow officers of the Bainbridge Public Safety Department (BPSD) were ending a domestic violence call that resulted in both residents leaving the home alone.
Instead of simply locking the home to prevent burglary—protocol for many police-only officers Matthews did a full walkthrough of the home, which she had been taught in fire training. During this walkthrough, she discovered the suspect had been so inebriated that he left the stove on.
“If I hadn’t completed fire training, I wouldn’t have known what to check. It’s second nature for me and my team,” said Matthews referring to the mandated cross-training for the BPSD.
While integrated first-responder agencies (primarily known as public safety departments) are not a new concept—the oldest was established in 1927 according to researchers at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice—a very small number of jurisdictions have fully integrated the functions of law enforcement, fire suppression and emergency medical services. In 2016, the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, joined the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) to release “Consolidated Public Safety Departments: A Census and Administrative Examination.” This report identified 131 consolidated public safety agencies nationwide, with 47 percent located in Michigan.
The report also outlined the three levels of department consolidation—full, partial and nominal. Full consolidation generally involves a complete integration of police services with fire services. In this model, public safety officers are cross trained in both police and fire services. In fully consolidated departments, a small number of public safety officers who are ready to respond with the larger fire apparatus remain in the fire station. Partial consolidation typically means having a limited number of public safety officers (PSO) trained as both police officers and fire personnel working alongside separate police and fire personnel in the same department. In a nominally consolidated department, police and fire services are not integrated, and consolidation is generally limited to the chief executive.
According to Chris Hobby, Bainbridge city manager for 18 years, BPSD’s calls are approximately 98 percent police work, but all officers (excluding fire engineers whose sole function is to operate the fire apparatus) are cross trained in accordance with the department’s policy.
The idea of a consolidated public safety department in Bainbridge originated with former Mayor Bill Reynolds, who served from 1978 to 2006. He was intrigued by the idea of cross-trained officers after seeing the success of other departments in the Midwest. By the time Bainbridge City Manager Charles Tyson stepped into his role in 1986, the Bainbridge City Council had already voted to consolidate the police and fire departments, but little had been done to complete this drastic change, said Tyson. He was familiar with consolidated public safety departments, thanks to his time as the city manager in Johnson City, Tenn. Tyson described the transition from two separate departments to one as a difficult process due to resistance from some personnel. “There were some firefighters who just wanted to be firefighters—not made to serve as police,” he said.
Both BPSD Director Jerry Carter and Chief Investigator Larry Funderburke, who’ve served the city for a combined 80 plus years, vividly remember the department’s consolidation. Funderburke recalls traveling with Reynolds and Tyson to Aiken, SC, to study the community’s public safety model.
“We shadowed them around and they showed us the pros and cons, and about a week after we came back home from Aiken, we were the new Banbridge Public Safety Department,” he said.
A report, authored by Dr. Paula Sampson of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, studied the feasibility of consolidating the fire services provided by Bainbridge with those provided by Decatur County.
This report also outlined several efficiencies of public safety models including a deep dive into Bainbridge’s success over the years. According to the report, public safety models minimize personnel cost for local government by using the time when firefighters are not responding to a call to deliver law enforcement services. This model also reduces overlap when an ambiguous call is made to both fire and police. In addition, the model’s cross-training element reduces potential personnel redundancy.
Sampson also found that Bainbridge’s fully integrated public safety department is far less costly on a per capita basis than cities with police and fire services. In addition to saving taxpayer dollars, residents benefit from quicker response times, said both Hobby and Tyson who referenced the department's current two-minute response time versus the five to seven-minute response time before consolidation.
The city’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating, which grades fire suppression capabilities for communities, also improved from a seven to a four. Tyson credits a large part of this rating to consolidation.
When asked about the keys to the department's more than 30 years of success, both Tyson and Hobby noted progressive leadership, community engagement and intentionally branding the department as one unit (versus some fire safety officers and some strictly public safety).
Public-safety sponsored community events include the Bainbridge Public Safety Citizens Academy, Copsicles for Kids, Oscar Jackson Outdoor Camp, Shop With a Cop and fire hydrant painting.
“Being involved in the community and actually reaching out to kids in the community and showing them that we care and we’re there for them is a big part of the job and helps them see our guys as one team,” said Fire Engineer Michael Jenkins.
Hobby commends Bainbridge leaders for taking a chance by creating a joint department. Their “all-in,” progressive mentality really made the department work, he said. “We combined the departments; they all work the same shifts. We did not try to do some hybrid or to have a quasi-public safety department. We went all in with public safety.”
Both elected and public safety officials have maintained this same progressive energy over the years, even in the face of national objection to joint departments. Opponents of the public safety model theorize that quality of service is often compromised to balance strained budgets, and staff in these department models may have low morale, which could result in excessive turnover.
But Sampson found that “compared to other municipal police departments of similar size in southern Georgia, BPSD turnover does not appear to be problematic. The average annual turnover rates for BPSD and four other cities for 2012–2016 are similar.”
While pointing to both the reports' findings and community satisfaction over the years, Hobby also cautions cities considering a cross-trained department to first consider their “true” intentions for consolidation.
Though Bainbridge has seen significant monetary savings from the combined departments, money shouldn’t be the sole motive, he said. “If you're willing to sacrifice service to save money, then don't do this [consolidation],” he warned.
He also advises researching other communities’ public safety models and taking a thorough assessment of a city’s current state and needs. “You have to know your community and what your needs are,” Hobby said. “I would certainly look at what we’re doing here in Bainbridge. But I would also look at what other communities are doing and the academic research on consolidated departments.”
Once safety leaders have completed this due diligence, Hobby encourages them to take full control of this change.
“When you jump in…jump in,” he urged. “I wouldn’t half do it—the half approach is not going to get you what you want.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Georgia’s Cities Magazine. Click here to view a digital copy of the most recent edition.