AUBURN — A combined public safety department, with shared support services for the police and fire departments, could be great as long as the two departments keep their identities.

That’s one of the lessons five Auburn employees — two police officers and three firefighters — learned by visiting the city of Grants Pass, Ore., last month. That city merged its departments in 1983.

“They have been there, they have done that, they have made the mistakes and made the corrections,” Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen said. “We are in a better position because we can take and learn from their mistakes.”

Auburn considered combining the police and fire departments under the Public Safety heading last year, but directed city staff to investigate the idea more thoroughly. Moen said he met officials from Grants Pass at a conference this summer and thought they would be a good place for Auburn to start.

Moen, Detective Chad Syphers, Deputy Fire Chiefs Geoff Low and Mike Minkowsky and Fire Lt. Chris Andreasen all spent a week in the Oregon city, meeting with employees and members of the public to discuss combining the departments.

Grants Pass is a city of 33,000 in south central Oregon. Once a timber-based economy, it currently supports light manufacturing and wood products industries as well as retail and tourism.

It’s a very different community, Moen said. Grants Pass covers less area than Auburn — it’s 12.9 square miles to Auburn’s 66. The town’s property tax levy pays only for public safety, and voters turned down a property tax increase in 1983, forcing the city to look for ways to save money. Moen said that led the community to combine their police and fire agencies.

The city’s public safety department has three divisions — police, fire and support. The support division handles the paper work, administration, training and other functions for the police and fire divisions.

After talking with police officers, firefighters, officials and residents, Moen said the Auburn group settled on three conclusions: It could work in Auburn as long as only the top fire and police officers are cross-trained, the fire and police functions stay unique and the process is open and transparent for staff and the public.

Moen said Grants Pass started out trying to cross-train police and fire officers.

“They started down the cross-training road in 1991, where they took their police sergeants and battalion commanders and cross-trained them up 100 percent,” Moen said. But they found that those cross-trained officers could never keep up with their lessons.

“The skill sets are perishable, and it requires constant training to keep them up,” he said. “They found the cross-trained officers were never available for work because they were always at training.”

Moen said it is still important to cross train the top officers, the deputy fire and police chiefs, so there are good candidates to replace the public safety chief. It’s just as important to keep the rank and file officers and firefighters distinct, however.

“They have very different cultural identities,” he said. “One of the mistakes they made, they tried to blend them into one cultural identity. It led to confusion among the ranks and some morale problems as well.”

Moen said Grants Pass also had a problem with perceived favoritism.

“Whoever was the public safety director, it was either a police guy or a fire guy, and the line staff where the director didn’t come from felt they didn’t know what was going on and they were kind of the stepchildren of the organization,” Moen said. If Auburn combined the departments, the public safety chief would have to work hard to learn both functions well.

Police Chief Phil Crowell said a copy of the group’s report would be available on the city’s website later this week.

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