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."
Clarke says leadership from both departments made a commitment to make the new shared facility work, figured out how it would operate on a day-to-day basis, and then inspired staff to accept the idea. "You just checked your ego at the door and realized we were all in it together, so we had better make it work," he says. "We all said we had to give it a try, and after working on it we realized it was actually going to be a great solution."
Kaestle Boos' ultimate design called for the sharing of E9-1-1/dispatch, records, a main lobby and reception area, two training rooms (one of which would also double as an emergency operations center when needed), a community meeting room and two conference rooms. The police and fire associations even raised $40,000 to help equip a combined workout room.
"This isn't to say we didn't each end up with our own spaces," says Mason. "We have our own locker rooms, office spaces, operations and equipment rooms. But since opening the new facility, it has become a lot less about what is 'our' space and what is 'their' space and more about how we both can work together. If you visit any time of the day, you'll see police and fire staff walking throughout the building and interacting. The kitchen in the fire area has become a communal meeting place, and our dispatch staffs now work together as a team. The new facility has made us more of a family than I would have thought. Our relationship has improved a hundredfold."
Clarke agrees: "In my estimation we've gone way beyond our initial expectations. The times really pushed us to look at ways to economize, but this new facility has been a blessing in disguise. Whether sharing equipment, secretarial or a joint wash bay, we've evolved into one group of public safety providers working to help save community lives and property. Sure, we do things differently, but by living together under one roof, we've found we have more in common than not. I joke and tell friends I now have a whole new group of best friends, and they all carry guns. Plus, the citizens of Harwich are getting better service with quicker response times."
Further west in central Massachusetts is the town of Holden, a community of about 16,000 that borders New England's second largest city, Worcester. Holden was like a lot of towns: Its police and fire facilities had aged, and the town lacked a good EOC. Due to budget concerns, leaders were struggling with finding a way to move forward. They found an answer in the idea of a combined public safety facility.
"We engaged in a really long process, working with the police and fire chiefs and town residents to find out what would work best for Holden," says Chris Lucchesi, chair of the town's building committee. "The consensus was that it would be more affordable for taxpayers to build a combined police/fire/EMS facility that would also function as our emergency operations center. The plan called for a facility that had some shared space but gave each department room for its own operations."
Lucchesi says the cost savings from a combined facility were significant--close to $2 million on a project with total construction costs of $12 million. Savings came from a number of sources, including the town's need to purchase less land, a single mechanical system, one boiler and fewer construction materials.
"Unlike some towns, we were already sharing dispatch between police and fire, so we had one toe in the pond," says Lucchesi. "Even if we weren't already working together on some level, it would have been hard to get a project for two separate facilities approved by the voters if they knew combining facilities would result in a nearly 17% savings. The new facility will be completed by the end of this year. I'd be lying if I said there were no concerns at the beginning about how this would work, but as the project has evolved, both the police and fire have begun to look forward to the new building and created a great working relationship."
"There's no doubt in my mind that combining police and fire facilities is the trend for the future," says Kaestle Boos' Tavares. "Every major new public safety project I've worked on over the last few years has been a cooperative effort between fire and police. In Harwich there was some reservation because they had been separate forever, but now those two departments are showing others how well shared facilities can work. There are other towns as well, such as Foxborough and Norfolk. Norfolk has been working together for a while, and is now looking to build a new facility that will allow them to maintain the relationship."
"My advice to other departments is not to get stuck on tradition," says Harwich Police Chief Mason. "If you have two department heads who are willing and want to work together, it'll work. Everyone doubted us at first, but now it's to the point where other agencies and departments from across the region are calling us for advice or requesting copies of contracts and procedures. It's been a great thing. I can't say enough about it. The combined facility was definitely one of the best things we've ever done."
Lucchesi agrees. "You need to have all the appropriate people on board with the project," he says. "In Holden the project never would have passed if the police and fire weren't on the same page. And this cooperation helped when trying to bring the issue to the taxpayers for approval. They saw the need for the project and the benefits--and with both the police and fire sharing one message, it helped convince voters."
Tavares recommends any municipality considering a new police or fire station look seriously at the benefits of building a combined facility--not just for the cost savings, but also for improved efficiency.
"I think in every case of a shared facility, there was some concern at the outset about how it would work in the end," Tavares says. "Can police and fire really get along? Some reservations may exist at first, but when a building is programmed and designed correctly, the departments have their own independent areas that fully support their operations, and interaction is encouraged by public and shared spaces, it does work. In today's economy, and given the evolving role of our public safety providers, combining facilities is an option that all municipalities owe it to taxpayers to explore. The idea shouldn't be dismissed offhand because it's not how they're used to doing business. Once they do the research, they may be surprised with the positive results and support they'll find."
Kaestle Boos Associates
Kaestle Boos Associates is one of New England's leading architectural firms, specializing in police, fire and public safety facility design, school design, senior housing and other types of municipal architecture. With offices in New Britain, CT, and Foxborough, MA, the firm has served clients throughout the country for nearly half a century. For more information visit www.kba-architects.com.