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Rohnert Park approves independent study of its unified police and firefighting force

Rohnert Park has launched an outside review of its unified police and firefighting force in a bid to improve performance and assess whether the Department of Public Safety is meeting the needs of the growing city.

A Washington, D.C.-based consultancy, the Center for Public Safety Management, was hired, at a cost of up to $116,620, to help the city prioritize how it deploys its police and firefighting resources and determine if current public safety staffing levels are sufficient. The review will also look at potential ways to reduce costs and make the public safety department - the city’s largest with nearly 100 employees - more efficient.

“The public safety analysis is very important,” Vice Mayor Joe Callinan said at last week’s City Council meeting, where the contract was approved on a 4-0 vote. “We’ve had people tell us that we spend too much money, not enough money. I think we need someone on the outside to give us their opinion and maybe we’ll find out that we’re not doing things that we should be doing, or we’re doing things fantastic and, ‘Kudos, kudos.’?”

The study, with results due out in early June, comes as the city nears groundbreaking this spring on a long-awaited fire station on the city’s west side, at an extension of Martin Avenue and Labath Avenue. Council members and city staff emphasized a belief that a top-to-bottom study could offer ways to enhance the structure of the dual department and improve its overall level of service. There were no indications from officials that its scope would encompass potential separation of the two divisions.

“We just need to look at fire staffing, our investigations, command staff, records, dispatch, patrol and how the beats are divided up,” said City Manager Darrin Jenkins. “That’s the kind of analysis this firm is going to be doing. It’ll help us make sure we’re providing the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.”

Rohnert Park is one of only two known jurisdictions in California with a unified police and firefighting force, where employees rotate through both roles. The department is comprised of 50 public safety officers, 13 sergeants and three commanders, plus emergency dispatchers, parking enforcement, animal control, a fire marshal and inspector and administrative staff.

Its budget of $20.4 million accounts for the greatest share of the city’s general fund - more than 42 percent in 2017-18 - and includes $3.9 million in funding from the Graton Resort & Casino, which operates on the city’s northwestern edge.

One of its main obstacles has been a high turnover rate, with five fire jobs currently unfilled, leading to mandatory overtime for affected shifts dating to mid-2016. Those vacancies are in addition to six others the city has created to stock the future west side fire station, expected to open in 2019.

A tight labor market and difficulty attracting hires to a department that requires work in both law enforcement and firefighting are factors in job retention, according to city officials. The city recently recruited seven new officers for its police academy, and most will also undergo fire training at the city’s expense.

A Press Democrat report from July 2017 revealed that staffing shortages in the past few years have, at times, seen the department struggle to keep a minimum number of patrol cars on the street and also led to fewer dispatchers fielding emergency calls. The department’s officers privately questioned the leadership of Chief Brian Masterson, the department director, holding a no-confidence vote last May that favored his dismissal by a count of 36-6.

Just ahead of the vote, the city awarded Masterson a four-year contract extension, making the tally largely symbolic. Masterson, who has led the department since 2009, was out of state tending to a family matter Thursday and could not be reached for comment about the new study. He indicated he was open to changes last year after the no-confidence vote.

“At the end of the day not only do I want to support the community, I want to have my officers feel confident in what I’m doing in terms of management and leadership,” he said at the time. “I want to work to rebuild that.”

Previous Press Democrat reports dating to 2013 also include several high-ranking fire personnel from neighboring districts voicing doubts about Rohnert Park’s commitment to fire services, alleging they were consistently forced to step in and take over on calls. Those assisting districts questioned the amount of fire training the city’s officers received, as well as their staffing levels and ability to manage a working fire.

Rohnert Park Fire Commander Mike Bates acknowledged previous difficulties, but he said those struggles were in the past. He said Rohnert Park was praised by several area departments for their response to the October wildfires.

“We proved ourselves immensely,” said Bates. “We are truly police and firefighters, and can perform in both capacities very well.”

The staff report recommending the third-party study to council members notes last year’s community survey showed that a majority of the 2,400 respondents held favorable impressions of the city’s public safety officers. The consensus from respondents was that violent crime and property crimes are not a problem in their neighborhoods.

Still, Bates thinks the department has room for improvement and said he’s “ecstatic” the City Council approved the independent study after he lobbied for it over nearly two years.

During his five years in the position, the number of fire calls has risen by ?200 to 300 each year, to 4,319 last year. So it’s appropriate, Bates said, that the department conduct such a data-driven review in an effort to keep up with the city’s expanding population, now at nearly 42,000 residents.

“We’re not a top-heavy agency and don’t have a lot of command staff,” he said. “We know that needs to change.”

The study may also document a shortfall in line staff, he indicated.

“And the benefit of an outside agency doing it is it may have a little more weight than a chief saying, ‘We need five more officers or 10 more firefighters.’ This is going to be based on city size, calls for service and response times, our budget, what can our budget absorb, and, really, are we utilizing our resources in the best manner?”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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