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More Michigan police, fire, paramedic services likely to merge


More Michigan communities may consolidate their police and fire departments because of the unstable economy.

Cross-training police, fire and paramedics isn't a new idea. Some places have operated that way since the 1950s.

Jeremy Wilson is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

He's also director of the Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services at MSU. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Wilson is leading research that could help communities decide whether to merge their public safety services.

"There's very little practical guidance they can look to," Wilson says."Part of the challenge we see is that a lot of communities may look at consolidation as a silver bullet. But it's important that they find a model to fit their own circumstances.

"Policing is one of those areas we hold very dear, and we try to support with every mechanism we can, but we've seen unprecedented budget shortfalls and other changes happening in law enforcement."

Wilson points to Pontiac, where the police department was eliminated and services are now provided on a contract basis by the Oakland County Sheriff's Department.

Wilson says mergers can be emotional and complicated.

"There's a whole host of issues to think about in terms of the culture and identity of the organization, the nature of job functions and practical matters, like contracts, policies and procedures," Wilson says.

He says about 130 public safety departments around the country have merged fire, police and, in some cases, paramedic services.  Michigan, Wilson says, has seen 57 such consolidations.

How can mergers affect the strength of fire and police services?

"Some do cross-training just for command staff, Wilson says. "Some do it for all employees. And some don't do any cross-training, and just merge their administration. One of the criticisms we hear is that these are two fundamentally different jobs, and it's too difficult for one person to do both," Wilson says. "But the fact of the matter is we see evidence where it is successful -- in Kalamazoo, for example."

He also says more civilians are working in non-sworn public safety positions, but believes consolidations don't mean the elimination of union positions.

"In fact, they are all mostly union personnel, and that's one of the issues that makes mergers very challenging. You're different organizations and blending them," Wilson says.