The day-to-day partnership between Crystal, Minn., public works and police departments and the West Metro Fire-Rescue District is a very intentional one that has exceeded expectations for successful outcomes. When this effort started a number of years ago, the goal was simple: we consistently act as a cohesive team when responding jointly to emergency calls within the city, with each department bringing its skills and abilities to the problem as appropriate. To provide some context, the City of Crystal is a Minneapolis suburb of 5.8 square miles with just under 24,000 residents. The police department has a sworn strength of 34 officers, the public works department (which includes utilities) has 26 full-time staff, and West Metro (paid on call) has 58 firefighters with seven full-time during the weekdays. So, while Crystal is by no means a small community, it is also very far from being a large city.
The intentional effort to build collaboration and communication happened in a number of ways. At the top levels, the police chief, fire chief, and public works director repeatedly went out to lunch together and talked on a regular (at least weekly) basis. On the frontline level, public works supervisory staff and maintenance staff did ride-alongs with the police department and, in one case, a sit-along with our dispatch center. These intentional interactions not only built personal relationships and information sharing, but most importantly set the groundwork for establishing and maintaining trust. Ride-alongs also gave the public works staff the opportunity to see the city from the police department’s point of view, which can be much different than that of public works. Outside of the workday, some public works management and supervisors bring their interoperable 800mhz radios home with them. This allows for quick communication with both police and fire should something happen during the night or on weekends.
Another example of building collaboration is, when able, police provide traffic enforcement around public works staff in work zones. We all want to go home at the end of the day and vehicle crashes are a significant hazard for both public works and police staff. This visual presence has gone a long way in building trust as the police are literally watching the backs of the public works staff.
One of the best tools in facilitating this response has been the joint use of Active911 by police, fire and public works. While this is not intended to be a sales pitch for Active911, it is an example of how a single tool was used to bridge one of the biggest challenges that we had faced in the past. That challenge was how to get all the key information to all the needed resources in a timely manner, without creating additional work during the response to an incident. Put simply, Active911 sends a text/app alert out to subscribing phones when a call is dispatched. The message provides only basic call information, but is enough for public works to start if it looks like a call they could potentially help on. While the police department gets all the calls pushed to their phones via the app, public works staff have filters set in place so that the public works supervisory staff get certain calls. Some examples of the calls that are sent to public works supervisors include utility issues, sign/signal problems, vehicle crashes (with and without injuries), fires, hit deer, debris/littering/objects in the road, and missing persons. While there is the potential for a wide range of call types that public works can assist on, there are a few examples that stand out as success stories.
In Spring 2019, a call was received of a vulnerable adult who had walked away from a building in the city. Public works supervisory staff saw the call come in (via the Active911 app) and reached out to the police supervisory staff to see if they would like some assistance in searching for the missing person. The police department responded they would and within 10 minutes of the initial call time, unified command was established at the site where the missing adult was last seen. Public works staff divided up into teams of two and were given neighborhoods to search along the railroad tracks. Police staff checked the major commercial areas and prepared media notifications. Due to the search area size, one department could not have efficiently checked the area alone. In less than one hour of the initial call time, one of the public works teams located the individual nearly 1.5 miles away from the spot he was last seen. This success story is not one held by any one department, but a testament to how dedicated staff in different departments can come together, using the unified command system, on short notice and work as a coordinated team in pursuit of one goal.
One of the major resources that public works brings to emergency response is the ability to deploy traffic control at crash, fire, or other incident scenes. During normal workdays, when a call for a crash comes out that is on a road in the city (as compared to a parking lot or where the vehicles have pulled off the road), the public works street maintenance superintendent will automatically respond to the crash. His vehicle has been equipped with some additional emergency lighting, reflective tape, cones, and the equipment needed to clean up vehicle parts and broken glass. For larger incidents, the public works department has a custom-built trailer loaded with various traffic control devices that can quickly be deployed to a normal construction project or an emergency scene. On one such occasion there was a major crash that ultimately was going to need crash reconstruction completed due to the severity. As soon as the call was received, the streets superintendent responded to the scene and contacted the police and fire staff already on the scene. It was quickly determined that significant traffic control was going to be needed. The fire department worked on extricating one of the victims from the vehicle, the police staff started their crash investigation protocol, and public works set to work mobilizing the needed traffic control to secure the scene on the major roadway for a few hours. Because of the intentional efforts to build trust between all these groups, everyone knew their role and set out to do it. More importantly, the strengths of each department were being fully maximized with fire staff solely dedicated to rescue and vehicle stabilization, police staff focused on the investigation, and public works providing traffic control around the scene.
The Crystal police department is a busy department with 32,863 calls for service in 2018. Another success story is in the way some of the calls to the police, which are not criminal or related to an immediate threat to public safety, are able to be quickly assigned to public works staff. During normal work days calls such as traffic signal issues, down trees, or utility issues are quickly seen by public works staff (via Active911) and the staff lets police know they will take care of it (by utilizing the interoperable 800mhz radios that include a city police informal talk group). One, more intense, example of how successful this can be was an occasion where all the police staff were tied up on a shooting and a call came in regarding a sewer backup into a home. Even though it was not during the workday, public works staff saw the utility call come through Active911 and contacted police staff. After simply getting the reporting party’s phone number, the public works staff made direct contact with the resident with the backup and addressed it. Police resources were able to stay focused on the higher priority need, but service to the resident with the sanitary sewer backup was not compromised.
One of the most common ways public works is involved in emergency response is during a major storm event. In keeping with the unified command concept, when a potentially severe storm is forecasted, communication between police, fire, and public works is established to identify the point person for each department as the storm system moves through. Most of the time the storms do not cause significant damage, but the few times the storms have caused considerable damage or disruption the point people for each department meet at the West Metro Fire-Rescue District where the operations center is based. Based on past experience, it has been very productive to ramp up the command side of the response from all the departments as early as possible. Taking this approach and physically being in the same space helps to reduce the chaos when everyone is trying to get on the same page. Not only are damage lists quickly consolidated between the various sources, but all resources are coordinated related to the overall response needs such as damage assessment, debris clearance, fire response to down wires/poles/fires, and traffic control of flooded roads or other issues. This approach reduces confusion, reduces multiple staff checking on the same issue, streamlining reporting of electrical issues to the power utility, and consolidating the documentation of the overall response.
This intentional effort to improve coordination, communication, and collaboration between West Metro Fire-Rescue District, the Crystal public works department and police department has resulted in a positive impact on how emergency services are provided in the City of Crystal for both day-to-day events and larger-scale response. While some may think that coordination like this is more feasible for larger cities, based on our experience we would hope that other communities look at this as a potential opportunity for them as well. Homeland security is a team effort with everyone bringing their strengths and abilities to the table at the right time in support of the common mission. Having this strong, day-to-day partnership between police, fire, and public works means that regardless of the event, the foundation for that response and recovery has already been established and is being continually nurtured.