CINCINNATI – Getting a Cincinnati police officer to your door when you call 911 for help can take up to 20 minutes, according to a police presentation Monday.
Police and fire leaders argued Monday the reason for those potential lengthy response times is a result of critically low staffing levels at their respective departments.
The presentations before city council’s law and public safety committee served as a reminder to the new City Council, which largely ran for election under the pretense they would do everything they can to avoid public safety layoffs, that the city’s public safety institutions are in need of more resources to properly respond to Cincinnati's emergencies.
Despite adjustments in both departments’ operations, officials appear to be running out of options.
Mayor John Cranley is concerned, as is the police department, whose chief said response times in the city’s west side are “unacceptably high.” From dispatch to an officer’s arrival, it can take up to 20 minutes in District 3, compared to a little more than 10 in District 1, 14 minutes in District 2 and 5, and nearly 15 minutes in District 4, according to 2013 year-to-date data provided by the Cincinnati Police Department.
“We are busy, and I think everyone in the city knows that District 3 is the busiest district that we have and so response times are unacceptably high. We’re looking at a myriad of options that we have to try reduce those times,” said Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell on Monday.
The map below shows how Cincinnati police response times vary within the department’s five districts. Click on any portion of the map to get details about total calls, response times and total crimes within a district.
Source: Cincinnati Police Department
The police department is considering realigning the city’s districts to more effectively allocate resources to cut response times, and they have already enacted new guidelines that change the way officers handle minor vehicle crashes, false alarm calls and offense reports.
The changes, implemented under assistant chief Paul Humphries when he served as interim chief over the summer allow for officers to file a crash report at their discretion. Specifically, officers may elect to not file an accident report for a crash in which both vehicles are operable. The hope is to free up 15,000 to 18,000 officer hours to focus on other crimes, Humphries said in July.
Blackwell, though, doesn't necessarily believe that's the best course of action.
"We'd like to provide full service, because it helps make citizens, particularly the elderly, feel safe," Blackwell said.
Police department brass is also “civilianizing” more positions to allow for sworn officers to do more police work. In development is an online reporting system for the public to file police reports not requiring police response, such as lost property, certain theft reports and criminal damaging, for instance. The web-based reporting system, COPLOGIC, is expected to come online in January.
A more responsive police department website is under development, too, “with information on how to best resolve routine issues before contacting police,” according to the presentation.
Cranley has repeatedly said he wants to add more officers to the street, and the police department is ready.
“For priority calls, there is a 20-minute delay because we don’t have enough police officers,” Cranley said Monday. “I’m looking to add more police to the streets and the ongoing operation deficit of the streetcar is going to hurt my ability to do so – that’s my biggest concern.”
In Monday’s presentation, Blackwell told Councilmember Chris Smitherman, chair of the law and public safety committee, the police department has put together figures on the cost of a new 40- to 60-member recruit class, but is waiting for council to appropriate funds.
“I’ve instructed our background investigations to get everyone ready and processed up until the point where we need a go-ahead from council to pay for the finalization of the class,” Blackwell said in council chambers. “We can’t proceed until we get the go-ahead.”
Fire Department Brownouts Could be Reduced
Fire Chief Richard Braun testified to the committee the fire department’s response times “don’t even come close” to national standards, largely because of browning out of five of its 40 companies or 20 firefighters per shift.
Each company has a four-person staffing minimum. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends five to six people on a piece of equipment. The fire department pays overtime to limit the brownouts to five companies. Brownouts have been effect since 2009 to some degree.
The NFPA recommends a four-minute response time after the dispatch center receives a call. Braun said fire department response times have increased by three minutes more than the national standard during his presentation Monday.
“When we brownout, we operate below the recommended staffing and it’s not a good situation
if we’re trying to provide the best service,” Braun told WCPO Monday.
Braun said the staffing needed to provide adequate safety coverage for the city is 192, but current staffing levels hover around 172. Brownouts rotate among the city’s 12 stations, which house companies, such as ladder trucks, Braun said. The city's 40 trucks are housed at 12 different fire stations throughout the city, according to Braun.
The department has 26 engine companies, meaning trucks that can pump water, 12 ladder trucks and two heavy rescue units, which are specialized companies that conduct automobile extrication, trucks totaling 40.
Come Feb. 7, the fire department will graduate 40 new recruits, who potentially could cut the brownouts to only three companies, Braun said.
“If we get ourselves to a good strength and stop the brownouts, then we can look at just having recruit classes that would maintain our strength and take into account for retirements,” Braun said in council chambers. “There may be years we only retire 10 or 15 people.”
Braun said 70 percent of the department is between 41 and 61 years old.