It Takes a Village: Integrating Firehouse Hubs to Encourage Cooperation among Police, Fire, and the Public

Greta Hurt

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Tension and hostility between police officers and society seem to be on the rise, and officers and firefighters alike face violence and other threats on a daily basis. While these agencies strive to protect and serve, they often overlook how they might protect and serve one another. They also may fail to recognize what a cooperative, united front might do to improve public trust and relationships.

Community-oriented policing and fire service community-risk-reduction (CRR) strategies are distinct, but they share a notable similarity. Both strategies are aimed at building relationships, cooperation, and trust between citizens and either police officers or firefighters. While the secondary benefit of CRR is fire prevention, proponents of community-oriented policing—foot patrol operations in particular—maintain that a secondary benefit is the potential for reducing crime.[1] Advocates of CRR, especially those who propose the village fire-company concept describe similar notions, asserting that when firefighters become trusted neighbors to the citizens in their “village,” knowledge between the groups increases, and the risk of accidents, injury, or death by fire decreases.[2]

While both models tout building trust and cooperation with citizens as well as preventing fire and crime as beneficial, neither addresses the potential advantages that a successful collaboration could also have for both disciplines. Neither model addresses the possibility of police and fire organizations joining forces to better cooperate, communicate, and ultimately protect each other. Finally, neither model recognizes the potential positive impacts that focused police and fire cooperation could have on the public.

A.                Research Question

How might utilizing firehouses as central hubs for police officers improve and enhance cooperation and safety among officers, firefighters, and the community?

B.                 Research Design

This study focuses primarily on determining how existing community-centered approaches might be improved to enhance trust, cooperation, and ultimately the safety of police officers and firefighters by using firehouses as central hubs for officers located within the same geographical area. This study does not examine existing community-oriented policing or community risk-reduction models to determine whether they are successful at reducing crime, accidents, or fire fatalities. Instead, the focus is on agency and community relationships, particularly on how the cooperation and safety of police officers and firefighters may be improved.

The majority of this research centers on focus group interviews and discussions. Three specific focus group discussions were conducted to brainstorm ideas and to determine the perceptions and customer needs of police officers, firefighters, and citizens. The focus group interviews entailed meeting with three representative groups to determine what an improved joint community, police, and fire model using fire stations might look like, if applicable. Twenty-four out of 30 contacted subjects participated in the focus group discussions. The three Oklahoma groups represented Owasso firefighters, Tulsa police officers, and Tulsa citizens.

C.                Findings

This study indicates that most of the focus group participants are in favor of community-centered efforts, including the proposed firehouse hub concept. Findings from this study also reveal differing views among the groups regarding the benefits and challenges of such strategies, as well as insight and suggestions for their success.

According to the agency groups, the biggest challenges of community-focused efforts in general are staffing and budgeting requirements needed to engage the public. In short, doing more with less is difficult. Fire and police agencies are often unable to contribute as much time to community strategies as they would like due to limited staffing and lean budgets. Citizens on the other hand, disagree, asserting that agencies do not need more money or resources—they only need to do things differently.

As for the fire-station hub approach, all of the firefighters, police officers, and citizens who made up the small sampling of participants reacted favorably to the proposed idea. All groups described benefits that could be gained from the approach. Regarding the foreseeable barriers, fire and police both delineated minor issues that would need to be resolved. The firefighter participants mostly expressed concern over the living arrangements although at least one referenced the loss of trust that might occur if community members perceived firefighters and police officers as sharing information more frequently. In contrast, the police officers were apprehensive about imposing on the firefighters’ private space, and unsure about how to get past this issue. This group also indicated concern about differing personalities and achieving buy-in from both groups.

D.                Recommendations

This thesis proposes a merging of community-oriented policing and community-risk-reduction philosophies by extending the village concept to include police officers. This proposal is not a program or policy that outlines specific components or requires training or changes in job descriptions or skills; it is simply a mindset and a more focused cooperative approach designed to create symbiosis between firefighters, police officers, and the communities they serve. This approach suggests utilizing existing fire stations as catalysts to encourage police officer foot patrols and to foster better relationships, cooperation, and safety among all groups. This thesis suggests that better collaboration between police officers and firefighters might significantly improve the relationships and safety of first responders and the public.

[1] Brett M. Cowell and Anne L. Kringen, “Leveraging Foot Patrol to Strengthen Community-Police Relations,” Police Chief, March 2017, 14, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/PoliceChief_March_2017_WEB.pdf.

[2] Paul Peluso, “Virginia, Oklahoma Fire Officials Push ‘Village’ Model,” Firehouse, August 29, 2007, http://www.firehouse.com/news/10504665/virginia-oklahoma-fire-officials-push-village-model.

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