Firecops: the emergence of a hybrid officer

As volunteer firefighters' ranks dwindle, more towns let police officers man the hoses

The well-starched police officers in Carolina Beach know that walking the beat in a tourist town takes an ounce of attitude and a pound of creativity. There are dogs on the loose, brazen kids on skateboards, and the occasional evening brawl.

And in a crowded town where sailboats float up canals next to narrow condominium lanes, fires can be a problem. A few months ago, an officer picked up a garden hose to put out a kitchen fire he spotted on a routine call. But soon, if a new "public safety" plan goes into effect, police here may do a lot more of that: In a quirky new trend, they're increasingly being asked to play the dual roles of cop and firefighter.

For patrolmen like Kevin Reynolds, that means pulling superman-in-the-phone-booth moves when the fire alarms go off, substituting hose for baton in this village of 5,000 winter residents.

In small towns having trouble finding volunteer firefighters and looking for better insurance ratings, the two professions are being merged in the guise of "firecops." If the Carolina Beach plan is approved this month, all 25 officers will go to "rookie school" for firefighters and carry "turn-out" gear in their cruisers.

In a larger sense, the firecop's emergence is a snapshot of a shift in how the public is protected. Proponents say it would ultimately provide more protection. Critics maintain it would lead to worse service, diverting police from their true duty: safeguarding the public.

"Right now, some communities are having public-safety officers do eight hours on the fire truck, eight hours in the ambulance, and eight hours in the police car," says Gary Ludwig, an emergency-response consultant and a former St. Louis paramedics chief. "Towns are saying, 'We don't want to go out and hire full-time firefighters, so what we're going to do is take this standing workforce and say: "You're a firefighter now." ' "

The broader definition of "public safety officer" isn't widespread yet. But it's a growing movement in rural towns like Carolina Beach, where volunteer fire departments often have deep roots.

In North Myrtle Beach, S.C., department heads report success, as do chiefs in Carolina towns like Holly Springs and Knightdale. Often, it's a transitional move as towns outgrow volunteer fire departments and find they lack enough available people to don firesuits. According to Carolina Beach officials, the new designation will not just help the town's insurance rating, but could help in securing federal Homeland Security grants.

"The idea is to improve customer service, give a higher standard of service, and provide a quicker response," says Willard Killough, the editor of the Island Gazette weekly in Carolina Beach. "Small towns reach a point where they have to either go with full-time firemen or stick with volunteers, so [firecops] help take a strain off of that."

At best, it's an uneasy alliance. The historic divide between firefighters and police offers was painfully apparent in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the forces brawled over access to Ground Zero. By all accounts, in Carolina Beach the rivalry among loblolly pines and palms is a gentle one. But philosophically, Mr. Killough says, response from the ranks has been as lukewarm as the Gulf Stream eddies that draw tourists.

"Here on the island, there's a lot of old-school thought that a fireman's a fireman and a policeman's a policeman," says Killough. "The firemen don't see why it's necessary and the policemen don't want to pick up a fire hose."

At the height of summer, Carolina Beach is a teeming town where bars outnumber restaurants by 2 to 1 and the din of vacationing masses can grow "riotous," says Stephen Hughes, a grizzled British expatriate who owns the Coffee House. As pelicans glide on the breeze, 40-foot deep-sea fishing yachts belch diesel fumes in this haven for blue-collar families, ponytailed bikers and aging beach boys. There's a hefty public-safety challenge, as baby buggies mingle with kids skateboarding down narrow streets.

Still, the many skeptics, including Mr. Hughes, say there's a reason the services have always been separate and distinct. "It's like asking a mapmaker to go out and do the surveying, too," he says. "Not only is it not his skill, but it's going to be taking him away from his real job."

And some worry that taking cops off their beats will invite petty thieves. "I just can't imagine cops fighting fires," says Fred Dattler, a former volunteer fireman who rents bikes on the boardwalk. "It's a criminal's daydream: All they've got to do is light a fire on one side of the island and rob a couple of houses on the other."

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