Public-safety services look grim

Department leaders say response times higher, staffing lower
By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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A grim picture of the city of Lincoln?s state of police and fire services was painted during Monday afternoon?s public safety meeting. Interim Fire Chief Mike Davis and Interim Police Chief Paul Shelgren provided statistics about response times and staffing. Those at the meeting included City Manager Jim Estep and City Councilmen Stan Nader and Paul Joiner. ?We are at that stage we have been talking about for 2 ½ years and it will get ahead of us and we won?t be able to catch up,? Shelgren said. ?Unless something changes with the budget and we get more people, our outlook is not great at all.? Shelgren said traffic citations are down by 20 percent but traffic collisions are up by 10 percent. ?Response times to priority-one calls are up from seven minutes to eight minutes,? Shelgren said. ?I expect in the next couple of months that to go up because of staffing issues.? The number of assaults is up 39 percent compared to last year, Shelgren said, and burglaries are up by 3.7 percent. Auto theft has doubled, according to Shelgren. ?Those are the results of not having proactive enforcement,? Shelgren said. As of June 1, the police department will be ?down to 16 sworn officers? on patrol since two officers will be on family medical leave for six to eight weeks, Shelgren said. The department?s detective sergeant and school resource officer will ?all go back to patrol,? Shelgren said. In addition, the department is ?down to five dispatchers,? according to Shelgren. ?Our focus is priority-one calls,? Shelgren said. ?The most resources and time is (used) to keep them in check but we are starting to lose ground.? Proactive police work is affected by low staff numbers, according to Shelgren, That?s because an arrest made due to a traffic stop or ?seeing something out of place,? means a three-hour round trip to the Placer County Jail. ?Do they make the car stop and potentially leave one person on the streets?? Shelgren said. ?On busy nights, there?s not a lot of proactive activity to keep resources close just in case.? The News Messenger asked Shelgren what it means to be at the point the city has been talking about for two years in regards to police staffing. ?Definitely quality of life will be affected in Lincoln,? Shelgren said. ?We just keep fighting and doing as much as we can.? Between Jan 1 and April 30, Davis said, the fire department responded to calls in five minutes or less 28 percent of the time and five to seven minutes 36 percent of the time. ?We average a little over six minutes,? Davis said. ?We?ll get busier as the summer goes on with more fire calls.? There were 938 calls for service to the fire department from Jan. 1 to April 30, Davis said. ?Depending on staffing, we close Station 35,? Davis said. ?Response times go up because they are traveling a further distance and it?s one engine covering multiple calls.? Fire Station 35 is on Joiner Parkway near Twelve Bridges Drive and Fire Station 34 is near the intersection of First Street and Joiner Parkway. Since Station 34 is ?busier,? Davis said, Station 35 is closed when staffing levels drop. The decision to close station 35 and operate solely out of station 34 is made when staffing numbers drop to four firefighters to cover the whole city, according to Davis. Fire station 33, located on McBean Park Drive, closed in the August 2010 due to budget cuts. ?One firefighter left to take another position (with another agency),? Davis said. ?It?s created a staffing issue because we?re always short one person.? The fire department ?runs short a person on each day,? and doesn?t ?backfill? or doesn?t bring another firefighter in on overtime, according to Davis. ?One of the costs savings was eliminating overtime,? Davis said. ?We are really struggling to make it three people on each engine per day.? One option could be using ?money left from that person?s salary to pay for overtime,? according to Davis. Estep said it would be a ?temporary measure? that would be ?cheaper than a firefighter?s full time benefits and pay ? as we figure out next year?s budget.? ?From my perspective, that?s not the real problem. The real problem is all those who may follow,? Estep said. ?Three more are testing (for positions with other agencies). We need to think of that and the FSC?s (fiscal sustainability committee?s) recommendation to contract out.? Estep said using the vacant firefighter salary as overtime ?doesn?t solve the longer-term problem.? Shelgren said staffing for the police department ?depends on the budget and what the budget numbers and forecast is for the coming year.? He said he was ?hoping to know in the next few weeks? what that budget forecast is. Estep said fire department staffing will also be discussed during the budget process.