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Commission ponders new public safety building

March 8th, 2014 10:59 pm by Tony Casey

Commission ponders new public safety building

On the heels of an $80,000 operational review of city and county law enforcement and emergency service departments, the Johnson City Commission may be looking ahead to building an all-encompassing public safety building to hold all three entities.

City Manager Pete Peterson announced at the end of a nearly four-hour presentation about the Johnson City Police Department and Fire Department and Washington County-Johnson City Emergency Medical Services by the International City/County Management Association that the findings would help plant a seed with commissioners and those in attendance that now might be the time to start planning the construction of a building to accommodate the needs of each.

He said internal conversations had already taken place between commissioners and department heads about the possibility. He said they could use 5 acres owned by the city next to city hall for such purposes.

The review, partly paid for with the promise of $10,000 from Washington County, in no way was wasted money to Commissioner Jenny Brock, who said it will be essential as they move toward the budgeting process.

“We’re going to use this as a blueprint moving forward,” Brock said, thanking taxpayers for the funding of such a review.

What sparked Peterson’s comments on the possibility of a public safety building several years down the road were the thoughts shared by Jim McCabe, one of the reviewers who spoke about the police department.

“You’re doing a lot with what you have,” he told the crowd of a few dozen, in relation to the department’s cramped situation at its current location on East Main Street.

Police Department

Chief Mark Sirois was in attendance to listen to McCabe’s review of operations at his department. McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department and professor of criminal justice at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, like his counterparts, delivered a summarized version of things noted while reviewing the department in September, as well as on-site meetings since the initial review.

He gave a very positive review to Sirois, and even admitted to being somewhat surprised as to why he was asked to review the JCPD when it preliminarily appeared to be running so well. Sirois said he appreciated the review, but is always looking for ways to improve.

“We’re in the mode of constant improvements,” Sirois said. “I’m looking forward to implement some of the findings of the review.”

The report said highlights of the JCPD’s operations include a well-managed, appropriately staffed criminal investigations unit, as well as the earned luxury of being accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. The department, with 85 sworn officers, is operating well within its means in regard to response time to calls and using the resources it has available, the report said.

McCabe said he’d been a part of 36 operational reviews and puts the JCPD near the top.

“JCPD is in the top tier of departments of 36 I’ve looked at,” McCabe said. “You have a really good police department.”

The ICMA survey about working for the JCPD drew 111 responses. Repondents reported enjoying the shifts they work as well as saying they feel they provide excellent service to the community. The review board found the JCPD spends about $220 per citizen, well down from the $323 spent on citizens in other similar cities. Commissioner David Tomita asked how this could be, and McCabe’s answer also has relation to why the JCPD has had a bit of a turnover issue with officers.

“You pay less,” he said.

Sirois said exit interviews are conducted with officers leaving, and he has found many use the JCPD as a stepping stone into other law enforcement opportunities or even to leave the industry for better money. The review also showed Johnson City has a lower crime rate than Kingsport, and is on par with Bristol.

McCabe said the biggest issue with the JCPD is the facilities, but also with the amount of 911 calls to which officers respond, often frivolously. He called 911 calls “the anchor on the speedboat,” and something that can be partly remedied by better communication between Washington County 911 dispatchers and the JCPD. That being said, McCabe applauded the department for the response and service times to calls.

Emergency services

Dr. Steve Knight delivered ICMA’s operational report of the EMS, in which some of the issues raised were in relation to call and response time, as well as developing a strategic plan.

“We feel at ICMA that it’s extremely important to go through the planning stage,” Knight said. He said it would go a long way in the budget process. Some things to be considered would be to start with executive planning and combat longer waiting times by equipping certain emergency vehicles accordingly, as well as moving to a new fractal method in regard to giving expectations of how long it will take EMS personnel to arrive.

Commissioner Clayton Stout raised the question of why so many vehicles and personnel showed up to a recent 911 call at his neighbors. Knight said this is a common concern with citizens across the country where they’ve conducted their work.

The way to cut down on this would be communication between city and county emergency services.

A thumbs-up was given to strong leadership as well as the financials of the EMS crews after Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin raised a question about how money was being spent.

“Is it your opinion that we’re putting adequate budgets to the EMS?” he asked.

“It’s common to be a quarter of the way down on budgets,” Knight responded, “But that’s typical with being good stewards of public money.”

Through the establishment of an EMS board, Knight believes some of the communication issues will be resolved. Efficiencies can be improved, Knight’s portion of the report said.

Fire department

One of the most shocking discoveries of the operational review came from ICMA public safety associate Mike Iacona, who said he was befuddled about why in the last few years, three people on average have died each year in Johnson City because of fires, well up from the national average of similar situations, which is below one.

“I scratched my head. There’s an anomaly here, what’s the cause?” Iacona said.

The conclusion he came to was a combination of fire codes and also the use of drugs and indoor smoking in this part of the country. Van Brocklin agreed this is always an ongoing problem in the area, especially with the emergence of methamphetamine.

Iacona said smoke detectors go a long way in fighting these types of deaths, to which Tomita wondered if any of those recent deaths would have been prevented with more smoke detectors. Iacona held his ground and said with more detectors and improvements to fire codes, safety would increase.

An issue brought up by Van Brocklin and Peterson was the increased multi-story apartment buildings and revitalization of the downtown Johnson City area. Peterson said a few years ago parties making improvements to properties around the downtown area pushed back against the commission, saying their codes were too strict, and ultimately got the board to back down.

Peterson said fire deaths are a related cost to that sort of push against strict fire codes, especially in buildings like the John Sevier Center on North Roan Street, which had 16 deaths in a 1989 fire.

“This is a conversation that needs to be had,” Peterson said.

Aside from fire deaths, Iacona was complimentary of the fire department’s operations.

“We’re tweaking a system that is very well-managed,” Iacona said.

Another issue for the JCFD is the amount of times crews have responded to false alarms — 950 in the year the IMCA examined. Iacona recommended the JCFD be more selective in responding to calls that could be a potential false alarm, perhaps only responding to suspicious calls when smoke is witnessed or when multiple calls have been made in reference to the same situation.

The topic of moving to more lightweight fire vehicles was also discussed, which could both save money for the JCFD by extending the life of the vehicle, but also not putting so much wear and tear on it.

“It’s a philosophical approach,” Iacona said. “We advise you look into it.”

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