SUNNYVALE (KCBS) – Across the state, cities are facing tough financial times and the unpleasant prospect of having to layoff police and firefighters.

But one Bay Area city has a history of cutting public safety costs by combining police and fire departments.

Sunnyvale Public Safety Officer Greg Othon said he sometimes has a difficult time explaining exactly what he does for a living.

“I just try to say I’m a police officer and a firefighter. Then they look at me cross-eyed and I have to go into the 15-minute talk about what a public safety officer does,” said Othon.

KCBS’ Matt Bigler Reports:

What he does is patrol the streets of Sunnyvale in his squad car, which carries more than the usual amount of gear.

“It’s got a lot of stuff in it,” Othon said.

That includes three bags: one for EMT response, one for his SWAT rifle and one for his firefighting gear, which he changes into whenever he’s called to a fire.

“It’s really strange when you’re in the police officer mode to now be in the middle of taking off your gun belt, taking off your ballistic vest and changing into your fire turnouts,” he said. “We get our air packs and all that stuff off of the fire rigs.”

Sunnyvale officers have been fighting crime and fires for over 60 years and city spokesperson John Pilger said having one public safety department saves them a lot of money.

“If you have separate departments, you have to achieve all of the administrative structure that goes along with that,” said Pilger. “In a combined department, we don’t have that kind of problem.”

And at a time when many cities are looking for ways to stretch their tax dollars, Captain David Verbrugge said some have been inquiring about Sunnyvale’s unique way of doing things.

“While they see the efficiencies and the ability for us to make it work, they realize that if they were to take their police department or fire department and try to combine them right now, it would be almost impossible,” said Verbrugge.

Impossible because larger cities need more specialized firefighting operations according to Robert Sapien, President of San Jose Firefighters Local 230.

“It would be very difficult to take on the additional workload of being a police officer in the tenth largest city in the United States,” Sapien said.

The only other comparable U.S. city with combined police and fire departments is Kalamazoo, Michigan.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (2)
  1. KP says:

    Robert Sapien is sadly mistaken. Sunnyvale has every it the specialized fire operations of a large city. The real issue is 1) It is next to impossible to turn a firefighter into a policeman. Starting with the background investigation, those who wish to become firefighters generally have no desire to be assertive or confronational when the need arises, something a policeman needs to be able to do. It is very easy to turn a policeman into a firefighter. They enjoy the “break” from the streets and the more relaxed way of life -generally speaking. In fact, several Santa Clara County Sheriffs have become Public Safety Officers and firefighters and love it. 2) Administration and politics: When you combine 2 departments, there is a Chief who loses his job. Which one is it and how does the other react? Generally not well.

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