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Schubart: Public Safety

This is the kind of question that causes people to stare at their shoes during Town meeting.

“Does the greater Burlington area, from Milton to Richmond and Charlotte really need ten police, fire and rescue departments?”

It’s like asking if mom’s apple pie is really better than store-bought pie. The citizen who questions fire, rescue, and police budget requests for new trucks, gear, and buildings to house it in is seen as somehow unpatriotic. There’s an old joke that went … you didn’t oppose fire department requests unless you lived in a brick house.
By my count, including campus security, there are upwards of twelve law enforcement agencies within a ten mile radius of downtown Burlington. There are roughly ten fire departments and a similar number of stand-alone or integrated EMS services. Statewide, there are more than sixty distinct law enforcement authorities such as the State Police. That’s not even counting local police departments. And there is no state law-enforcement oversight, licensing or regulatory body other than collective internal command structures.
Meanwhile the violent crime rate has held steady, averaging about 750 incidents a year since 1975. According to official crime reports, there have been fewer than ten murders a year in Vermont for the last three years, and according to FEMA, the average number of residential fires has been declining for some time.

Questioning duplicative investment has nothing to do with the critical value of the services themselves. If we have a heart attack, a break-in or a fire, we all want rapid response. The duplication of services question, similar to those being asked in health care, education and social services, addresses cost-efficiency not value.
It’s not clear whether the greater Burlington area would be better served by a single command and control authority for police, fire and EMS with community outposts enabling rapid response. But it’s debatable that each town needs its own, exclusive management hierarchy, communication system, frequencies, fleets of squad cars, ladder and heavy rescue trucks, and holding facilities. It reminds me of the debate over whether we need sixty plus school superintendencies in a state with 88,000 students.
By all reports, the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations is an excellent model for law enforcement cooperation across seven different police departments. Perhaps it could become a model for a more sophisticated and cost-efficient delivery of public safety services county-wide.

Police, fire and EMS services are pillars of our small local communities and must remain so in rural areas, but in an area like greater Burlington, where ten towns and about 60,000 people are concentrated, we may not really need the duplication of resources.

As resources diminish and populations stabilize, we will need to waste less energy debating our tax burden and size of government, and spend more on how we can measure and achieve improved results in education, health care, social services and even public safety, with the resources we have.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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