A new breed of local protection officer: a policeman/firefighter

When a kitchen fire broke out recently in this affluent Louisville suburb, Anchorage Police Chief Arthur Weakly rushed to the scene in his squad car. Grabbing some fire-resistant clothing and an extinguisher from the car trunk, he quickly doused the blaze.

Chief Weakly is one of a new breed of local protection officers who have been trained in both firefighting and police work.

In most of the few dozen small and medium-size towns trying this experiment - no organization keeps an accurate current count - they are known as public safety officers, and they represent a merging of police and fire departments. Many officers are trained as emergency medical technicians as well.

Though most police and fire unions adamantly oppose the concept - a key reason no city of more than 150,000 residents has yet adopted it - proponents insist it carries several advantages.

Most studies indicate that well under 5 percent of the average firefighter's time on the job is spent going to or from or actually fighting a fire. And a very high percentage of the fires can be put out by hand-held extinguishers if officials get to the scene quickly enough. In most public safety systems police cars are equipped with basic firefighting equipment. Fire trucks are still on call. But it is generally the drivers rather than a full contingent of firemen who wait with the vehicles at the station.

Though the cross-training costs more and officers often get a 5 to 15 percent raise for the added responsibility, some of those experimenting with the concept insist it can save dollars for the community over the long run.

In Durham, N.C., where a program has been under way for a decade or so through 10 public safety stations and one fire station, per-capita fire and police protection costs tend to be lower than in nearby towns.

And in Glencoe, Ill., public safety director Robert Bonneville estimates annual savings of between $250,000 and $500,000 for that community of 9,200 people. He says it is mainly because fewer people are needed to do the same job. Glencoe officers were initially given a 15 percent pay increase but are no longer paid better than those in surrounding communities. But because officers are busy and able to do more, there is less complaining, Mr. Bonneville says.

The Glencoe chief says that the response to every major call - whether a fire or a burglary - is stronger as the result of the change. He recalls one recent instance where patrol cars, chasing a burglary suspect, were joined by a village ambulance. When the suspect emerged from the bushes as the ambulance drove by, the public safety officers in the vehicle stepped out to arrest him. Bonneville says the suspect was dumbfounded: ''You can't do this, you're not policemen.''

Allen Andrews, former public safety director in Grosse Point Woods, Mich., which adopted the concept during World War II and has kept it going ever since, cautions that efficiency rather than economy should dictate the move. ''You can often get a better level of protection and service for less money than with two departments - but if you do it solely to save money, it's a mistake.''

Another key advantage of the public safety concept, according to Anchorage Mayor Peyton Hoge, is the speed with which a squad car, often on roving patrol duty anyway, can get to the scene of a fire. ''The secret is quick response,'' he says. ''Our police can be anyplace in less than two minutes, and if you get to a fire fast enough, you can put it out with a cup of water.''

Yet this lovely town of rolling hills and country estates stands a step apart from other experimenters in that Kentucky law does not permit cities and towns to hire public safety officials. Anchorage has long relied on a volunteer fire department in which most police officers serve during their off-duty hours. Mayor Hoge has capitalized on that spirit of good will by agreeing to let police have take-home cars in exchange for putting $700 worth of firefighting equipment in each car's trunk. But police draw no extra pay for firefighting.

''We don't have that many fires, and none of our boys have complained (about the added duty),'' says Weakly.

Still, Mayor Hoge and Edwin Griffin Jr., executive director of the Kentucky Municipal League, both hope to persuade the Kentucky Legislature to specifically permit public safety departments. With that change, Anchorage, so far the only such demonstration project in the state and a partial one at that, could pay a supplement to its police officers.

In at least one recent case, fire and police unions have been persuaded to try the public safety concept. It took three years of discussion and negotiating - with more pay as the carrot - before police and fire unions in Kalamazoo, Mich., were convinced the idea was worth trying. So far in the year-old experiment, some 40 officers have been trained as public service officials, with another 128 police officers and 125 firefighters to go. Time will tell how much of a precedent has been set.

''The whole idea is still very much under discussion - there are a lot of pros and cons,'' insists Margo Mills of Kalamazoo's Public Safety Department.

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