'One department, one team, one mission': Mich. fire, police departments unify

Monroe's combined fire and police structure, along with minimum staffing levels, aims to fix "longstanding" issues


Blake Bacho
Monroe News, Mich.

MONROE, Mich. — The City of Monroe has taken a significant step toward unifying the command structure of its police and fire departments.

But questions remain over what exactly the finished product will look like.

"Having a unified management structure — like an organization should have — allows you to overcome a lot of the challenges," consultant Guillermo Fuentes said. (Photo/Monroe Township Fire Rescue Department)

City Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution that establishes new, minimum staffing levels for the police and fire departments, and adopts a unified police and fire command structure for implementation.

Most notably, the resolution indicates council's desire to introduce the roles of public safety director and public safety commander within this new structure. There are expected to be four public safety commanders sharing the responsibilities of the role on rotating 12-hour shifts.

"It has been a long road... There's been a lot of dialogue," Monroe Mayor Robert Clark said at the end of Monday's meeting. "If I wasn't confident that this was going to serve the public in an effective and efficient manner, I would not have supported it... It is an adjustment, and there's going to be some hardships; That's the reality as we move forward..."

While the resolution establishes policy that council hopes to implement, modifications to the plan are expected as the city negotiates with the unions representing its police and firefighters. That negotiation process will determine what happens to the two departments' existing command structures as this new system is implemented.

In a phone call to the Monroe News on Friday, City Manager Vince Pastue said those negotiations will begin immediately.

"It starts Monday," he said. "We've already got three sessions (with related personnel and the unions) scheduled for next week..."

Pastue confirmed that the council-approved resolution would mean a reduction in staffing across the city's newly-unified public safety department. But he clarified that no one is being terminated, and that this plan would be phased in over the course of several years.

There are currently 59 city employees across the police and fire departments, with 19 of those staff members employed in supervisor and/or management capacities. Pastue said the new plan calls for a reduction down to 52 total employees, with those reductions likely coming from a combination of the police department's core patrol staff and the fire department's current command structure.

"Again, this is built on a five-year horizon," Pastue said. "Although a lot of the details we'd look to implement fairly quickly, (we'd do so) knowing full well it's not all going to happen overnight."

HOW WE GOT HERE

The city is hoping to address two longstanding issues by consolidating its public safety divisions.

Administration and council continue to look for ways to cut costs as a response to the impending financial fallout of the DTE tax tribunal case. Simultaneously, they've also searched for a solution to alleviate longstanding concerns expressed by members of both the police and fire departments in regard to the city's Public Safety Officer (PSO) program.

PSO's are police officers that are cross-trained as firefighters to assist on fire-related calls. While this program is typically used by municipalities with consolidated public safety departments, the city implemented a modified version in 2011 that preserved its separate police and fire divisions.

A survey of Monroe's police and fire personnel conducted in 2019 by Missouri-based consulting firm Fitch & Associates found that the vast majority of personnel across both departments disliked the PSO program as it had been implemented. Most of the city's fire personnel wanted it scrapped altogether, while the police officers that were surveyed wished to see it retooled rather than eliminated.

Fitch & Associates determined that because the city operated on a modified version of the PSO system, in which police and fire were still technically separate entities, overlapping responsibilities and an ambiguous command structure were the causes of this friction between the two departments.

Further investigation by Fitch & Associates determined that the way in which staff was dispatched to calls further exacerbated the issue, as too many personnel from both departments were too often sent on any given call. The resolution approved by council Monday also includes language designed to streamline the city's process for determining which personnel to send on a call.

In a review session with council prior to its vote on Monday, Guillermo Fuentes, Fitch & Associates' chief operating officer, said that while restructuring how personnel are dispatched on calls can solve some of the problems between police and fire, a unified management structure is the critical second piece of that puzzle.

"As it sits today, you really have competing interests in the field of who does what and how," Fuentes said Monday. "Even though we reduced significantly the amount of work, and the overlapping of work in the field, we still have some overlapping actually in the field. Allowing a singular structure to handle this so (disputes don't) end up on (Pastue's) desk is critically important.

"Having a unified management structure — like an organization should have — allows you to overcome a lot of the challenges."

'A POSITION OF COMPROMISE'

Monroe Fire Chief Rob Wight referred a request for comment on the resolution to the city manager. Police Chief Charles (Mac) McCormick IV, however, said that Monday's vote represents "what for a long time now, we've been waiting for... a directive, a vision from council that basically dictates policy in as much as how we want to deliver public safety services to the community."

"We have to stop looking at it as just a police issue, or just a fire issue; this is a public safety issue," McCormick said. "One department, one team, one mission: providing public safety services to the citizens of Monroe at the highest level, and not pitting against one another... As we move on with getting a public safety director appointed, getting these commander roles filled, they'll really be the nucleus of our leadership group that defines how the day-to-day functions will occur."

Several council members acknowledged the resolution during their comments at the end of Monday's meeting, recognizing that it marks the beginning of the end of the city's years-long effort to restructure its police and fire departments.

"The action we took tonight, it was a position of compromise," said Councilman John Iacoangeli. "There's been a lot of discussion, a lot of decisions, a lot of disagreements, but the position council came up with this evening was based on compromise."

"I think it provides clarity in leadership out in the field for police and fire," added Councilwoman Michelle Germani. "Having achieved that, I think, will service our community. The community deserves the service."

Councilman Andrew Felder recognized that the expected reduction in overall public safety staffing will likely prove unpopular.

"I can tell you honestly, I hate this plan," Felder said. "I think we all sort of do. No one is going to want to make this amount of reduction to any department unnecessarily. But despite the fact that residents are paying more in taxes, the city has and is going to have less money to be able to provide services within our community.

"We have to respond to that."

___

(c)2021 Monroe News, Mich.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 Fire Chief. All rights reserved.