The Public Safety Initiative – One Leg of the Stool

Grand Junction Police, Firefighters, and the civilian personnel that support their operations are in desperate need of new physical facilities from which to meet their responsibilities and achieve their mission.

I firmly believe that there will be new Grand Junction Police and Fire stations going up where the current ones exist, regardless of what the voters said on Questions 2A and 2B. The City will use existing revenue to build the Downtown buildings (with some revision of scale), and will re-prioritize lots of other projects, including some of the ancillary buildings outlined in the original proposal.

For what it’s worth, I supported both ballot questions, but had concerns about the portion of Question 2B that would “sunset” the sales tax increase for public safety once the Riverside Parkway debt is paid.

I believe that regardless of the City’s ability to wrest itself from TABOR restrictions, a dedicated revenue stream for public safety is necessary until all of the other components of a Best Practice are in place and well-sustained. For me, these components are:

Technology

Processes

People

From what I have read and what I know, the Public Safety Initiative constitutes primarily the means to build the physical plant and install the equipment necessary to do the job. The ongoing success of the initiative will depend largely on the procedures, including organizational structures, that define how the technology is utilized to achieve the organizational mission. Equally important is an ample quantity of trained personnel to efficiently function within the process and organizational structure, utilizing the tools at their disposal, to successfully fulfill the mission.

I equate this to a three-legged stool. It doesn’t matter how sturdy one leg is; if all three aren’t there, structured and in position to their intended job, the stool isn’t going to be upright for very long.

In this context, I did find one part of the campaign for 2A and 2B somewhat troubling; the assertion that a new 9-1-1 center alone will result in improved response times. Creating this expectation for the electorate will only help to set unreasonable service expectations for the hard-working men and women of the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center, because so much more is involved in making those response times happen.

Having worked there for 13 years, I can attest to the critical importance of the regional, county-wide scope of our 9-1-1 and dispatch center. That singular process element can significantly reduce the time that a call for help makes it to the correct place where that help can be sent.

However, the clock on the wall keeps ticking, and it matters not if there aren’t enough officers or deputies on the street and available when an emergency call arrives, or dispatchers are struggling to determine the correct jurisdiction amidst convoluted boundary lines that would give Rube Goldberg fits.

Even with technology and infrastructure addressed, there needs to be adequate support staff to assure that mission-critical computer systems, phones, radios, mobile data networks, and location solutions are working properly, and that repairs and upgrades are planned and performed in a timely and competent fashion.

As the City expands its’ public safety infrastructure, with or without voter approval, significant attention will need to be paid to those issues that play an equal role in shaping a best practice for all citizens that depend upon the resources that the City administers.

In the wake of the defeat of 2A and 2B, I believe that there are several components that collectively comprise the process and people segments of a best practice that need to be addressed. This will help to assure that the other two legs of the public safety ‘stool’ are sturdy and ready to support the load that will undoubtedly be placed on them. Some of these are:

Regionalization / Consolidation – Any evaluation of core operating processes must take into consideration opportunities for providing service on a regional level, borrowing from the model currently employed by the 9-1-1 center. The City deserves much credit for identifying such an opportunity by consolidating its’ crime lab with the CBI when they relocated from Montrose last year.

The topography and geography of the Grand Valley seems ideal to further explore the feasibility of a metropolitan police force, much like those that patrol greater Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and Miami. This would seem to me to go a long way toward standardizing response to multi-jurisdictional incidents, and achieve some measure of equity and parity in training, equipment, personnel standards, and compensation.

This is just brainstorming; there are many factors to consider, many things to talk about and investigate. I’m just wondering if the subject has ever been brought forth at any level of government, and what the outcome or conclusions have been.

Before we engage in any further edification of an organization or bureaucracy, we need to assure that all efforts have been made to look into optimizing the efficiency of these critical services, from both a delivery and resource stewardship perspective.

I believe that there are other possibilities for consolidation, from Property and Evidence to Investigations to Traffic, where the agencies serving the valley can pool their collective resources, leverage economies of scale, and provide a more consistent and coordinated level of service to as many citizens as possible, regardless of which side of an imaginary line they happen to find themselves.

Of course, the political realities of even sitting down at a table to discuss something like this would drastically reduce the odds of such changes ever seeing the light of day. With the mood of the electorate as expressed this past Tuesday, could just the act of establishing dialogue generate ideas not previously thought of, resulting in improved, more efficient service delivery to a frugal citizenry?

The same political realities manifest themselves in the Fire service. As the City continues to annex east of 30 Road and north of the Colorado River, they gobble up more territory inside the boundaries of the Clifton Fire Protection District. Little mention has been made as to how the GJFD will assume responsibilities for areas currently serviced by Clifton, should the Pear Park fire station be built.

Voters in the Clifton district approved a tax increase on Tuesday. It looks to me as if this district is preparing to deal with the impact of continued growth and call volume, not to reduce in size and service delivery as the City annexes more of the district, and plans to build a station to serve those areas. What discussions have taken place?

Annexation Reform – I’ve known Rick Wagner since he wore a Sheriff’s Department uniform. While we don’t agree on a lot of things, we seem to have landed on common ground when it comes to the manner in which the City chooses to grow under a 10-year old agreement with Mesa County that is in serious need of review and re-negotiation.

Rick said it best in his Sentinel column of October 22:

“This misapplication by the city of what was originally to be a major path toward logical growth of city limits into urbanized areas of the county has been contorted into the establishment of outposts of city annexation for the purpose of revenue.

Little concern seems to have been given toward the provision of public safety to the newly taxed inhabitants of isolated and far-flung city limits.

As an example, some neighborhoods to the east of existing Grand Junction city boundaries have remained unannexed for years, undoubtedly due to their lower tax base and higher service requirements. In the meantime, more remote areas of Mesa County, miles from the main locus of the city, such as a new and large subdivision between A 1/2 and B roads, are hungrily devoured.”

As a resident of the City’s ‘original square mile’, I have serious concerns with the way that existing public safety resources are being spread thin by the haphazard annexation of both development land and existing commercial and residential properties.

The city limits, such as they are, now extend from 20 1/2 Road in the Redlands all the way to Halliburton’s complex at 32 Road and D Road.

This jurisdictional patchwork is duplicated across the Fruitvale area and elsewhere to the point where dispatchers, GJPD officers, Sheriff’s deputies, and State Patrol troopers often have extreme difficulty ascertaining whose jurisdiction is involved. This practice has complicated the already difficult job that we ask of our public safety professionals.

The manner in which the City grows plays a direct role in the effectiveness of public safety systems. This needs to be addressed in some meaningful way by City Council and the County Commission.

Any current or future member of the Grand Junction City Council needs to carefully consider the potential impact of annexation on existing city residents, and their service providers, before voting in favor of any further annexation, at least until the Persigo Agreement is formally re-negotiated.

Citizen Advisory Board – The City seeks citizen involvement in an advisory or authoritative capacity though numerous volunteer boards and commissions. These include advisory boards that assist in such areas as Parks and Recreation and the Visitors and Convention Bureau. Strong consideration should be given to establishing a volunteer advisory board for Public Safety, especially if the City is eventually successful in securing a dedicated revenue stream (read sales tax increase) for the Public Safety Initiative.

Emergency Management – Grand Junction is one of the largest cities in the state without its’ own dedicated Emergency Manager. This leaves the job of threat and risk assessment, planning and coordination with numerous public and private stakeholders, and developing effective management strategies for major incidents and disasters, in the hands of responders and administrators already burdened with other significant responsibilities.
Mesa County’s Emergency Manager is skilled and diligent, but cannot be the sole professional responsible for the emergency planning needs of an entire metropolitan area.

Human Resources – The key to the effectiveness of any complex system is the people within it, from the Incident Commander to the newest Dispatcher, Records Technician, or Network Support Specialist.

Those with authority over the personnel needs of public safety agencies need to remain particularly cautious of the amount of responsibility that they saddle employees with, lest burnout become a more prevalent symptom among those whose expectations of themselves and of others exceeds the physical ability to meet those expectations.

With a larger, more complex infrastructure will come significant changes in processes, and the number of people required to effectively interact with both will increase accordingly.

It’s also critical that newer personnel, especially in the support services areas that I mentioned above, approach their positions with operational relevance to the entire best practice. This means that civilian staff not typically in the most visible or risky positions need to be empowered and respected for their expertise, but they must also strive to understand the challenges of those who are utilizing technology to meet mission goals.

In an enterprise such as public safety, tech support and systems integration is not something that is tucked into a remote corner, ends at 5 PM, or gets outsourced to a remote call center.

The above five action items need to be issue talking points for the current City Council, as well as anyone who aspires to the office next April.

Former City Manager Mark Achen had a favorite saying; “The devil is in the details”. In as complex and critical an enterprise as Public Safety, the broad brush strokes that comprised the initial plans for these new facilities need to be augmented with an introspective evaluation of how public safety services are currently delivered, and how that delivery can be improved.
This is regardless of the nice little boxes we draw around ourselves, or the color of the uniform.

This leap of faith, combined with a more responsible, monitored approach to the City’s growth and adequate staffing of positions critical to the success and safety of field personnel, will go a long way toward assuring that this most important of government services is prepared for the challenges that are upon it now, and are likely to increase in the not-so-distant future.

Have a great weekend.

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