Case Study: All My Best Friends Carry Guns

A move for joint quarters meets skepticism in Massachusetts--then makes believers out of a town's public safety providers.

If you travel across America, you'll find most cities and towns typically have separate police, fire and EMS stations, and most of these stations also have their own dispatch centers. Even in some of the smallest towns in New England or the Midwest, this still is the case. But with most states in a deep recession, taxpayers are questioning whether having separate facilities makes fiscal sense. It has been said that police, fire and EMS just don't get along, but some recently completed projects show everyone can benefit from a combined facility.

"There are a couple of factors that have been influencing the trend toward towns exploring the possibility of combining police and fire stations," says Daniel Tavares, AIA, principal with Kaestle Boos Associates, a New England architectural firm that specializes in public safety facility projects. "First, towns are really pinching their pennies due to the recession, and the idea of having separate police and fire stations now seems more like a luxury. Second, many New England communities that have aging facilities simply don't have the real estate available to build separate facilities, so a combined facility helps there as well."

Tavares says while police and fire often have many specific and particular needs or may resist the idea of sharing a facility at the start of a project, the significant cost savings that can be realized by building a combined facility ultimately help convince people.

"I'm surprised it's taken this long to realize that combined facilities are a smarter way to go for many municipalities," says Tavares. "You can save a lot on the construction of the building, utility costs are lower, and the coordination with E9-1-1 call-taking and dispatch is often improved. That's not to say a large town wouldn't still need multiple fire stations, so equipment is able to respond in a timely manner, but in states like Massachusetts there has been a significant push to explore ways to reduce building costs and coordinate call-taking and dispatch. Many of the newer projects illustrate how beneficial a shared facility can be to both the town and the fire and police forces."

One town that has enjoyed great success with a shared facility is Harwich, MA, a town of about 12,500 on the upper Cape. The town was in need of a complete upgrade to its aging police department building, and during discussions the idea of a shared police/fire facility kept coming up. "When we drew up preliminary plans for a new facility and started presentations throughout the community, we heard people ask time and again why we just didn't share space with fire," says Harwich Police Chief William Mason. "The two departments had been talking informally for a decade about sharing dispatch, but had not made any real progress, so this was an opportunity to do just that, and realize cost savings and space benefits. Once we made the decision to move ahead with the plan to share facilities, convincing many on the police and fire staffs was a challenge."

"It's true that there is a perception that police and fire just can't get along. I'm not sure how that ever got started, but it's almost become part of our tradition," says Harwich Deputy Fire Chief Norman Clarke, who also served as a member of the project's building committee. "Our chief would go to meetings about the project and be surprised how much resistance he would get. Some people in the department called him a traitor for even considering working with the police. Others said it would never work. The truth was our police and fire buildings were already on the same property, but separated by about 150 yards, which used to be referred to as the DMZ--you tried to avoid having to walk between the buildings. Looking back, it's funny how different the two departments are now, because there are no turf battles anymore."

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