Unalaska's Department of Public Safety has been the one-stop shop for local law enforcement for about five decades.
Now, after years of debate, the consolidated organization seems to be on the verge of a restructuring.
The City Council has advanced an ordinance that would split Public Safety into two standalone departments: one for fire and emergency medical services, and another for police, corrections, and dispatch.
While the council's 4-2 vote suggests it'll pass after a second reading next week, the dissenting members lobbed harsh criticisms at City Manager Thomas E. Thomas, the architect behind the proposal.
KUCB's Laura Kraegel spoke with Thomas about why he thinks Public Safety will benefit from the separation — and how he responds to those in doubt.
THOMAS E. THOMAS: I'll tell you a story. When I was Rock Island's manager [in Rock Island, IL], in the community next to us, Moline, the fire chief had some issues with how things were running and he decided to resign. So they decided to try something different. They put the fire department under the police department. It became sort of an issue, because firefighters didn't like having to go through the police department for getting things done. And we began to have a few of their firefighters applying to be firefighters with the City of Rock Island.
KUCB: Because your city still had that separate, independent fire department?
THOMAS: We were. We were a separate department.
KUCB: But I think, based on his statements at the last City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson would say that that's your experience. Yours. And that it happened someplace else. He was pressing you on what kind of planning you've done here. Who have you talked to here on the island? What's it going to cost here? Do you think we'll need a new building here?
THOMAS: Well, I did some initial research and had the opportunity to go over and look at the building. Talking to police and fire. Looking at their operations. We had some preliminary meetings. And now that we've gotten our first reading and are into our second reading, we have a transition team that's going to start working on the short-term issues regarding security access and how we're going to separate certain things. Maybe we have to lock a door. Access to the computers. Things like that. We're going to start looking at those things now. Long-term, the building does have some issues, and that's a CMMP project that we intend to bring back to council by next meeting. Because, right now, that's our oldest building. And operations-wise, whether they're separate or together, it's hard to function in that building.
KUCB: Right. The city has scheduled this building assessment as part of the capital projects plan, almost separate from the structure discussion, because of the building's age and its limited space. We'll see what recommendations come out of that assessment. But as for the transition team you mentioned, who will be on that?
THOMAS: It's going to be a representation of me, police, fire, IT, finance, public works ...
KUCB: So you do feel like you've talked with — and are including — a wide swath of the people who should be involved? Because the vice mayor seemed to express doubt that you've actually consulted with everyone who cares about this. That you've talked to enough Public Safety employees.
THOMAS: I'm a very open and accessible person. I have my cell phone [number] on my [business] card. I got a lot of feedback from people in the police department, people in the fire department, and a lot of people just wanted to share their views. But they wanted it to be done in confidentiality. So because I couldn't tell people who I spoke to, that can open it up for criticism. 'Oh, who was that person?' I can tell you they were reliable, the people I spoke with.
KUCB: And in talking to those people, did you get a sense of consensus in either direction? Did you find that most people want to restructure?
THOMAS: Generally, most of the people just wanted some sort of conclusion of the process. Most of them don't think — a firefighter or policeman doesn't think it's going to affect what they're doing day to day. They just want to know, when the structure's done, who they're reporting to. From the top, the perspective I have about a fire chief reporting directly to me, I can address a lot of the issues. The way it was in the past, a fire chief would have to go to the director of public safety, who came from a policing background. And while the information can go through there, I like hearing it directly to me so I can address those issues. It makes me more responsible to dealing with their needs.
KUCB: I also want to ask you about a criticism from Councilor Shari Coleman, who says there's no indication that restructuring will make actually Unalaska any safer in a practical sense. She argued that a change like this should only be made if it'll help Public Safety fight crime more efficiently, fight fires more efficiently, and so forth. And she doesn't see any reason to believe a structure change will do those sorts of things. What's your response to that?
THOMAS: Well, I can say that in my experience, there's always that rivalry that exists between fire and police. When it comes to looking at equipment and how to purchase it, being able to go to the manager, represent the type of equipment you need, [and] why you need to spend that, the chances are better that you would have that type of equipment approved — if you're able to make your argument directly to the city manager. The fire chief understands EMS and the fire services. They understand why funds need to be used for this type of training or this type of certification. So those type of little nuanced things can make a huge difference in the type of recruiting — the type of qualified people — that we get. And in regards to sustainability.
KUCB: And in that way, you'd argue that greater autonomy for the departments will actually add up to a safer town?
THOMAS: I think it does.
Members of the Unalaska City Council are expected to cast their final votes on the ordinance next Tuesday, Dec. 11.