Questions resurface about Rohnert Park fire-police agency
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 10:16 p.m.
When the newly incorporated city of Rohnert Park chose in 1963 to merge its police and fire services, Bob Ryan, chief of the volunteer fire department that then served the fledgling municipality, resigned because he opposed the plan.
The decision to combine public safety functions, so that officers switch between firefighting and police work, has been controversial from the start.
“Experts warned that 'City Hall will burn down while the bank is being robbed,' ” Rohnert Park historian John DeClercq wrote in his 1976 history of the city.
And nearly 50 years after Rohnert Park launched its consolidated department, it remains an object of uncertainty to many others in the firefighting field.
“These jobs are both very dangerous and my personal opinion is you can't serve two masters,” said Frank Treanor, chief of the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, which responds to Rohnert Park fire emergencies under an automatic aid agreement.
“You are either a policeman and very, very good at what you do,” Treanor said, “or you're a firefighter and very, very good at what you do.”
Despite widespread reservations about the joint model, it is attracting more attention from other jurisdictions struggling with tight budgets.
“There's a lot of interest in public safety consolidation, the potential it can have to save resources and other desirable outcomes,” said Jeremy Wilson, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University who studies the subject.
The city of Sunnyvale, whose public safety department is the largest and oldest consolidated operation in the state, is one model studied by other cities.
“Since the . . . economic downturn a lot of departments have come and studied us, to see if it's possible to incorporate all or some of what we do,” said Capt. Dave Verbrugge.
Neighboring agencies once questioned Sunnyvale's public safety firefighting abilities, he said. “Now they look to us as one of the leaders in the county.”
In Rohnert Park, the dual-department, spotted through the years with criticism, has undergone its own evolution.
In the mid-1990s, a series of bad fires and poor emergency response times prompted a battery of citizen complaints about the department's performance, which the Sonoma County Grand Jury also said needed to improve.
The department's firefighting side was then staffed chiefly by volunteers, mostly other city employees. No city fire station was staffed around the clock. At one point, just two officers were assigned to firefighting duties. Officers assigned to law enforcement duties were expected to fill in when needed.
You might be working alongside a public works employee, Parks and Rec, and then you had to go to the station and then you had to wait for a driver,” said Rohnert Park Lt. John Marty, who commands the city's fire division.
Today, 17 of the public safety department's 56 officers are assigned full-time to the fire division, which has a budget of about $3 million. And two stations are staffed 24 hours, one with three personnel, the other with two.
“It's a different model, and some people question it. You'll always have detractors,” said Public Safety Director Brian Masterson.
“Do I wish I had a more robust budget? Yes. Do I wish I had more resource equipment? Yes. There's a lot of things I wish for,” he said. “But a big benefit of the public safety model is cost. Look at cities in the Bay Area of 43,000 and I can tell you there won't be another city . . . that has (as small and as efficient) a budget as Rohnert Park has.”
The Rohnert Park department has its supporters.
“They can get the tasks done,” said Bennett Valley Fire Chief Darrin DeCarli, recalling a house fire last year that Rohnert Park firefighters assisted on. “They busted their tail doing a good job for us.”
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