Can Regionalization Help Local Police And Fire Departments?

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Orleans news , housing

Staffing shortages and the ongoing housing crisis led the Orleans Select Board to talk earlier this month about where police and fire resources might be able to be regionalized. FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS – The Orleans Fire Department is allowed to staff as many as five people per shift. More often than not, they get four.

But Fire Chief Geof Deering reiterated to the select board recently that his department needs more staff. With seven fire personnel per shift, he said his department can avoid instances where the fire station is left unmanned, a scenario that's become more commonplace as the department is increasingly called upon to answer simultaneous calls.

"If at least with vacation and sick time we had five people on duty, that puts two resources out on the road all the time," he said Jan. 4. "We have those people in the building. We're not relying on them to come from home."

Deering said fewer fire personnel are responding to "call backs," requests for off-duty personnel to come in as needed to cover the station.

At the same time, call volume is trending upward for the department, Deering said. From July to September, the department responded to 827 total calls, up from 752 over the same period last year. Transports are also up this year, with 379 from July to September compared to 299 over that stretch in 2021.

The Orleans Police Department is also short staffed, Chief Scott MacDonald told the board. His department is currently down three officers, and he said he has "conditional offers of employment" in place to fill those positions. But another opening is expected soon in the department's ranks, he said.

"I am unfortunately expecting another vacancy coming."

Both chiefs said the issue of staffing is not unique to Orleans, but rather one that is plaguing police and fire departments Capewide. They discussed with the select board the potential benefits and drawbacks of regionalizing police and fire resources.

The staffing issues are seen as a byproduct of the larger issue of housing. The Cape is in the midst of a shortage of year-round housing, and those homes and units that are available have become cost prohibitive for many working professionals, including police officers and firefighters.

"I think the radical solution is an investment in housing," said Select Board Chair Andrea Reed.

The issue is further complicated for the Orleans Fire Department by a requirement that fire personnel live within a seven-mile radius of the fire station on Eldredge Park Way.

Select Board member Mark Mathison has been the board's most vocal advocate for the need for more housing for Orleans' and the Lower Cape's working class.

"You want to hire eight firefighters. Where are we going to get them?" he asked. "Where are they going to live? How long will they stay here?"

On the fire side, Deering pointed to specific areas where regionalizing resources could benefit local fire departments, including cross training new firefighters across departments as well as regionalizing vehicle repairs and maintenance.

Deering said fire departments each contract out for repairs and maintenance of their apparatus, but a "centralized" location where all departments can go and have their vehicles serviced could be beneficial. In Dennis, he said, the fire department received a $25,000 grant to explore the feasibility of regionalized vehicle maintenance.

MacDonald said there is already a fair amount of regionalization between local police departments and the county, pointing to agencies such as the Cape Cod Drug Enforcement Task Force and the Cape Cod Regional Law Enforcement Council SWAT Team. But he also questioned how effective a fully-regionalized police force across the region would be. McDonald recalled conversations about 15 years ago between Orleans and Eastham police about combining the two departments. Those talks fell through due to concerns in Eastham about a lack of local control, he said.

MacDonald shared those concerns, saying that policing on the Cape would look "drastically different" if it were fully regionalized. Specifically, he raised concerns about how regionalization would compromise officers' connection to the communities they serve.

"Do we lose that, and how important is that in today's society?" he asked.

"There is tremendous value for the Orleans Fire Department that firefighters live and work in Orleans," Deering added.

But police, fire and town officials all agreed that police and fire departments need to change to a more sustainable way of working.

"This select board member is saying to you 'Let's be open to changes, if it's right,'" Kevin Galligan said.

Galligan also addressed the problems that "unfunded mandates" from the state legislature pose for police and fire departments. He said departments are being charged with more and more responsibilities, often without adequate funding and resources to carry them out.

Select board member Mefford Runyon said some of those responsibilities, such as mental health services, could be regionalized or contracted out to give police and fire departments some relief. It was also suggested that some administrative work, such as the handling of Freedom of Information Act requests, might be able to be regionalized across departments.

"That's a big one," MacDonald said.

Mathison, meanwhile, said he would like to see police and fire officials have more input on local boards and committees, such as planning and zoning.

No action was taken during the Jan. 4 meeting, but both the board and the chiefs expressed a willingness to, as Mathison put it, "think way outside the box."

"We're all in," MacDonald said. "Let's brainstorm this and make this work."

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