Sunnyvale officers fight both fires and crime

July 30, 2010 7:40:07 PM PDT
San Jose and other cities around the state may be cutting police and fire staffing, but one South Bay city has had no public safety layoffs. The reason -- its officers fight both fires and crime.

Lt. Curtis Barba is what the city of Sunnyvale calls a public service officer. He is cross-trained as both a cop and firefighter.

"It's tough to switch roles but it also makes for a challenge, I think most guys like the challenge," Barba said.

Friday, Barba is a patrol supervising officer, but tomorrow, he might put on his turnout and assume his other role as a fire station supervisor.

The city was able to balance its $264 million budget this year by cutting back some jobs through attrition and salary freezes. But no public service officer was laid off. Five of the 210 positions were not filled.

Sunnyvale's public safety model works this way: the city pays for the cross training.

Public Safety Capt. Dave Verbrugge says it is expensive.

"A police academy, which is about six months long, a fire academy which is about three months long and you have field training programs for each of these," he said.

But in the end, it is a good investment because there are cost savings down the road.

In most fire departments, three or four firefighters are assigned to each rig. In Sunnyvale, two officers are on fire duty are on each rig. They get plenty of reinforcements from officers on police duty when they need them. When there is a fire, patrol shows up and changes into their turnouts and now they are the firemen staffing it.

But Verbrugge says recruiting new hires can be difficult.

"You don't find firefighters that want to carry a gun and you don't find police officers that want to run into a burning building so it takes a special kind of person," he said.

Sunnyvale's Department of Public Safety has had cross trained officers since the 1950s. The city says its only one of two cities in the state operating under this model. Rohnert Park in Sonoma County is the other.


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