Survey suggests need for safety service shifts

Becky Campbell • May 10, 2014 at 9:56 PM

An expansive review of public safety services in Johnson City could lead to some changes in how 911, fire, EMS and police agencies here operate, but many of the recommendations are expensive, long-term projects, according to one city leader.

“It’s extremely thorough and very well done,” City Manager Pete Peterson said. “There weren’t any real surprises.”

The analysis was conducted by the International City/County Management Association at the city’s request. It included a review of every aspect of the city’s fire and police departments, Washington County/Johnson City EMS and the Washington County Emergency Communications District (911). The ICMA teams looked at facilities, equipment — from uniforms to vehicles and everything in between — policy and procedures, hierarchy structure, planning and budgeting, staffing levels, duty assignments and promotion opportunities.

To conduct the analysis, the ICMA used data from 911 to determine calls for service for each agency reviewed and compared those to nationally developed performance indicators. In addition to data analysis, the ICMA also conducted an operational review of each agency.

As part of that operational review, an ICMA team made a site visit to each agency, interviewed key personnel and conducted surveys and focus groups. The site visits occurred on three separate occasions in Johnson City. Those and the data analysis resulted in a report on each of the four emergency services departments.

In addition to the departments’ operations, the ICMA reviewed the facilities that house each one. The conclusion wasn’t pretty, with the reports describing some facilities as “appalling” and “woefully inadequate.”

Still, given that, the ICMA had some good things to say as well.

The study — which cost $90,000, including $10,000 contributed by the county because the study also looked at how intertwined the fire department is with EMS and 911 — was engaged to provide the city with a scope of where it is and where it needs to be.

Peterson said as a whole, the city’s public safety divisions are on track and provide quality service, but there’s always room for improvement. And some of the areas the ICMA recommended for improvement included several facilities that have a lot of age on them.

“We’re trying to be as cost-effective as we can. Our goal is to be the best, most cost-effective (that) we can be,” he said.

Many of the recommendations from the ICMA are actually items that have been on the table for a long time, leaders said.

E-911 Executive Director Bob McNeill has been trying for a number of years to move forward with finding a more suitable building for his agency. And Police Chief Mark Sirois has also talked about lack of space for his department. Four new fire stations were built in the last 20 years.

New facilities, as well as many other of the recommendations, would cost the city greatly and are likely to be on the long-range goal list.

“One of the big things that came out was to put automatic vehicle locators on all emergency vehicles,” Peterson said. “There are significant costs to that. It’s cost-prohibitive,” but also something Peterson would like to do and had discussed with the previous police chief.

The return on such an investment? Always knowing where each emergency response vehicle is located and being able to dispatch the closest vehicle regardless of where that vehicle may be assigned.

Considering the city covers around 40 square miles and police officers cover a zone around two square miles in size, an officer in an adjacent zone could be closer to a call than the officer assigned to the zone where the call originated.

The police department won’t be getting the technology right away, but EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley said he has requested funding in the 2014-15 budget to install it on all ambulances and rescue trucks.

Other suggestions included that EMS, JCFD and 911 have strategic plans for their agencies and seek accreditation with the accreditation association for their field.

“It has helped us review where we are and what we’re doing. It’s given us some ides on some changes we can make short-term to improve services,” Peterson said of the analysis.

But again, many of the recommendations are cost-prohibitive for immediate implementation, he said.

“It’s also planted some seeds to start the long-term strategic process ... and we can start beginning to build budgets five, six, eight, 10 years out ... knowing that we’re gonna have some significant changes to make in outlying years.”

Peterson said he hopes to continue these type of analysis processes on an annual basis “to pick another department in our organization and have a thorough study done just to help us continually go back through our different operations in our organization to ensure we’re spending money wisely and doing what we need to be doing.”

The ICMA is a nonprofit professional association comprised of local government administrators and managers with approximately 9,000 members in 28 countries. The organization’s goal is to assist local government agencies to implement best practices to improve services to citizens.

Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

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