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Royal Oak

February 20, 2012

Study recommends hiring police, privatizing ambulance

Royal Oak to discuss structural changes in Police, Fire departments
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A report presented to Royal Oak by the ICMA suggests structural changes to its Police and Fire departments, including the addition of 12 sworn officers and 8.5 civilian positions.

ROYAL OAK — A study analyzing the structure and efficiency of Royal Oak’s emergency service departments recommends adding a total of 12 uniformed positions and 8.5 civilian positions to the Police Department, privatizing ambulance service in the Fire Department and other structural changes.

The city voted last year to spend $66,750 on a study to look at every aspect of the struggling departments, with a particular focus on identifying the proper structure and staffing levels for each. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) completed the report and presented it to the city at a Feb. 6 commission meeting.

Leonard Matarese, director of research and public safety programs from the ICMA, said the ICMA spent a lot of time looking at both agencies, and emphasized that both have done a commendable job performing with a drastic reduction in staff. Royal Oak remains a low-crime community, he said.

“I know your goal is to address the financial problems the community is facing, but it is our observation that the Police Department needs some additional help, and the Fire Department is as lean as it can go with the exception of privatizing ambulance service,” Matarese said. “We are not known for coming back with that recommendation. The ICMA is pretty good at getting agencies down to the size they should be to serve the public.”

Mayor Jim Ellison said the commission valued the ICMA’s opinion.

“We’re not living in a vacuum here; we know we have to deliver police services,” Ellison said. “We put value on your recommendations for staffing. This isn’t just about cutting costs, it’s about sizing the departments correctly.”

Recommendations for the Police Department include adding one deputy chief, one lieutenant, two sergeants and eight officers, and the equivalent of 8.5 civilian employees. The report also suggests the department organize into two divisions: investigations and administrations, and patrol operations, with a deputy chief to manage each.

Other recommendations include creating a Business District Enforcement Unit and several other units that would better respond to incidents and also be proactive in the community. Today, the department is “a completely reactive organization,” struggling to achieve a community policing philosophy, said James McCabe, an ICMA consultant.

“The result of these recommendations is a lean organization,” McCabe said. “There’s not a lot of fluff right now in the Royal Oak Police Department. There still won’t be a lot of fluff. It is going to be lean with the appropriate amount of specialization, with core services being maintained, with a limited capacity to perform its core functions.”

Instead of a 24/7 front desk at the station, the ICMA suggested the department decrease the staffed hours at the front desk, and instead have a waiting room with a phone that connects to dispatchers during certain hours.

The department could reduce the number of false alarm calls it responds to by partnering with the alarm industry to look at alternative ideas, the ICMA said.

“It needs to be a deliberate effort with the stakeholders and this department to … shed some of this call volume,” McCabe said.

For the Fire Department, the ICMA said the city should consider contracting a private ambulance company to handle Advanced Life Services and eliminate paramedic positions. First responders would still have the ability to perform basic life support.

Many of the recommendations regarding the department focused on defining procedures, goals, long-range plans and performance measures. The department should also make a plan to address response time deficiencies, the report said.

“In the course of my operational reviews around the country, we see that planning — specifically strategic planning and business planning — is not very well carried out in fire organizations,” said Donald James, an ICMA consultant.

A few suggestions included the purchase of new equipment.

The study examined the possibility of moving into a public safety model, which would combine all emergency services in one department. According to Matarese, the switch would take five years, and there’s often opposition from staff, requiring negotiation. It’s difficult to make assumptions about the cost savings of moving to that model, he said. Typically, there’s an upfront cost involved, but in some communities around the country the change has saved 20-25 percent, he said.

Police Chief Corey O’Donohue has indicated many times that his department is understaffed and is struggling to maintain services. At the Feb. 6 meeting, the commission unanimously agreed to recall one laid-off officer to fill a vacancy created by a recent resignation in the department and to the hire of a second police officer.

“Whatever we decide for the department and what size it needs to be, it gets harder to get to a manageable level the lower we go,” O’Donohue said. “I don’t think we have enough officers to handle our work this summer.”

The City Commission asked a few questions of the ICMA representatives, but said it needed more time to review the reports and recommendations.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to read this; we just got this report,” Commissioner Patricia Capello said. “Once I digest it and think about it, we’ll have many, many, many more questions.”

The commission will dive into the details of the study at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 27, starting with the Police Department report. A future meeting may be planned to review the Fire Department study.

The full reports can be downloaded at the city’s website, www.ci.royal-oak.mi.us, and copies are also available to the public at the City Clerk’s Office and the Royal Oak Public Library.