Fla. county considers merging police, firefighting to save money

Marion County examined the model used in Broward County, which placed firefighting under the control of its Sheriff's Office years ago


By Bill Thompson
The Star-Banner

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — Broward County's top law enforcement officer said on Monday that a proposal to merge Marion's primary crime-fighting and firefighting agencies could work and would save taxpayers' money — but the effort would be meaningless if citizens were left more vulnerable by undercutting each department's core mission.

Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti visited Ocala to appear before the special blue-ribbon panel appointed by the County Commission to study the possibility of placing Marion Fire Rescue under the control of Sheriff Ed Dean. The sheriff floated the idea in September as a cost-cutting measure.

The meeting was the latest in the committee's ongoing effort to develop a recommendation on Dean's plan. That report is due to the County Commission in mid-January.

Monday's two-hour session was the first time the panel heard first-hand from the architects and practitioners of the model Dean seeks to emulate.

"I'm not here to sell you anything," Lamberti told the committee and a roomful of about 50 senior county staffers, citizens and local officials. "We want to give you the benefit of our experience."

That experience, Lamberti said, began in June 2002, when Broward leaders named a similar task force to review a potential merger.

Some 16 months later, he said, the concept became reality: Broward's fire department was brought under the control of its Sheriff's Office to create a "full service" public safety agency — the only operation of its kind in the state.

Lamberti emphasized to Marion's committee that at the time the plan was not — like Marion's — driven by budget cuts. Rather, it was designed to improve service.

"Our motivation was operational," Lamberti said. "How can we provide better service to the citizens of Broward County? ... Is there a way to do it better and cheaper?"

More specialized; more localized
The sheriff and the handful of senior lieutenants who accompanied him on Monday explained that Broward county commissioners did not make firefighting a priority for government. In the intensely urbanized community, that was largely left to the municipal fire departments that blanketed much of the county.

What emerged from the discussion about unification, the Broward officials said, was a fire department that became more specialized and more localized — but which by its techniques helped improve the spectrum of public safety for the South Florida community of about 1.8 million people.

The 540-member firefighting unit of the Broward Sheriff's Office directly serves about 162,000 people, many of them through contract arrangements with local city governments.

Though similar in size, Broward's fire department serves about half the population of its Marion County counterparts.

But Broward also developed specific units to handle fire calls for a portion of the Everglades, the international airport in Fort Lauderdale, the shipping traffic at Port Everglades, as well as emergencies such as air rescues, entrapped victims and hazardous materials.

In those capacities, Broward firefighters serve all of the county's residents, Lamberti said.

The key issue: savings
The blue-ribbon committee, chaired by former County Commissioner Jim Payton, peppered the South Florida officials with questions about costs, fleet maintenance, division of labor, turf battles between agencies, training, communications and other issues.

Savings was foremost among the inquiries. The Broward officials said nailing down exact numbers was difficult, partly because they weren't clear on the effects of the merger on the non-public safety operations of the county's government.

Broward fire Chief Joseph Lello said the ballpark estimate for the total savings was about $3 million.

The one hard number Lamberti discussed was $500,000 in reduced costs for fleet management. That was achieved by combining all services for maintenance and equipment for fire and police vehicles and ultimately by outsourcing the upkeep of Broward County's 3,500 emergency service vehicles to a private contractor that is managed by county employees.

In all, consolidation meant 21 people lost their jobs in what Lamberti characterized as "backroom" functions: human resources, legal, vehicle maintenance, risk management, purchasing and other administrative duties.

But, he added, there was "definitely a two-way benefit."

According to Lamberti, the merger streamlined and improved communications by cross-training dispatchers to handle all types of calls; SWAT teams and jail officials benefitted with the additional expertise of on-staff paramedics and firefighters; paramedics have been spread out, mounted on bicycle and motorcycle patrols; and command and control functions at major emergencies has improved as law enforcement commanders have learned the lessons from their better organized and more proactive counterparts in the fire service.

When asked about the "human resistance points" to the consolidation, Lamberti acknowledged there were "growing pains" and that a few officials on both sides flatly refused to go along because they simply opposed change.

Yet many others, Lamberti said, put public service and safety above flow-chart jurisdictions and embraced the move as "the wave of the future."

"We truly are one," he said.

Other counties looking
It could turn out Dean has started a trend as budgets across the state tighten.

Lamberti noted at the meeting that Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy has also expressed an interest in Broward's model and is sending a team of staffers there next month to learn more about how it works.

Lamberti admitted that at times running both services can be "a pain in the neck."

"But we're here to serve the public," he added. "This is a much better service delivery model for the public.

"We all respond together," he observed. "If you respond together, you should train together, you should plan together, you should work together."

The sheriff said the merger has also focused accountability — on him.

"Which of the nine [Broward County] commissioners do you go to when something screws up? When it comes to police and fire, I know who's accountable," Lamberti said.

For Marion County, Lamberti said, pursuing the Broward option depends largely on two things: county leaders summoning the political will to make it happen and can it be shown to work.

"We've already proved it works. Your model will work," the sheriff said. But, "it doesn't make sense if you save money and it's not going to work."

The committee would be critical for the latter, Lamberti noted, because the blue-ribbon panel in Broward discussed all the pluses and pitfalls beforehand.

The Marion panel will learn more about it at its next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 6.

Chief Dan Kuhn of the Sheriff's Office is expected to submit the blue-ribbon committee Sheriff Dean's proposal for incorporating Marion firefighters under his command.

None of the Marion County commissioners attended Monday's meeting. They were represented, however, by each of their appointees to the special task force.

Republished with permission from The Star-Banner.

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