Published: Apr 17, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Apr 17, 2012 07:01 PM
There are challenges and opportunities for the future for both the Chapel Hill Police Department and the Fire Department.
Current budget limitations jeopardize key programming areas. The Towns public safety budget continues to be strained by an increasing number of special events, including NCAA celebrations and Halloween. Budget cuts over the last three years have delayed replacement of critical equipment and routine maintenance.
There are new demands on fire and emergency service protection, evidenced by increased emergency call volume. State fire protection funds intended to reimburse the Town for coverage of UNC properties has been cut 10 by the NC Legislature, while at the same time, service demands from the campus and supporting properties continue to increase.
Our community is becoming denser, more urban. Vertical developments above four stories create different fire protection issues and the need for new equipment. For example, the Town currently has one aerial ladder truck and no reserve. The addition of more multi-story buildings above five creates the need for a second ladder truck and the 15 firefighters needed to staff the same 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Chapel Hill growth projections for the next 20-30 years will likely intensify the need for more space for police and fire operations. Both the current police and fire headquarters buildings are crowded with a number of shared workspaces. Fire headquarters for example was designed for housing on Fire Company (4 personnel) and about 3 offices. It currently houses 6 personnel and offices for 10. The Town Emergency Operations center (EOC) is also housed there and has both space and technology limitations.
Staying competitive is key. A review of compensation and retention issues within public safety departments is a priority. The Police Department has eight police officer vacancies out of its 120 authorized sworn positions. This correlates to about 2.2 authorized officer positions per 1,000 residents. Using 2035 population projections, the department would need an increase of nearly 48 officers to maintain current staffing ratios.
Using the same population projections for the fire department shows a staffing level of 1.8 firefighters per 1,000 population now indicating a need to add 45 firefighters by 2035. Opening of a sixth station for Carolina North will necessitate adding 25 to 30 of that total.
How do we police today and in the future? Chapel Hill officers devote a significant percentage of their time to outreach, problem solving, community relations, and other proactive activities. Growing density will likely make this level of service even more important to residents. Crimes against persons continue their downward trend, yet property crimes are increasing.
Faster response times generally call for greater staffing, but there is an opportunity to find efficiencies. Call prioritization can help achieve desired response times. The Police Department also is experimenting with staffing desk officers or light-duty personnel who can handle calls over the telephone or on a walk-in basis.
Technology will help. An enhanced web presence can offset the increasing demand for police services. Many agencies have begun offering online reporting for non-emergency calls. A website with interactive capability could offer crime statistics and mapping and could assist with crime analysis and public information. Use of these alternatives can help reduce field staffing and reduce fuel consumption.
The evolution of our community creates new challenges for public safety. We, as your public safety chiefs, are hopeful that the Chapel Hill 2020 Visioning process will shed light on our growing public safety needs for a vibrant, thriving community.
Chris Blue is Chapel Hills police chief. Dan Jones is the towns fire chief.