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City councilwoman: Public safety building ‘a dream and a goal’

The City of Williamsport has been batting around ideas of getting the police and fire departments into one public safety building for years — and UPMC Susquehanna, Susquehanna Regional EMS and the city codes department are all entities that could play a part.

And while the idea is gaining traction, there are a few hurdles to jump before those ideas turn into plans — and plans into construction.

“We would like to have a public safety building, and would like to have stakeholders with UPMC,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, who chairs City Council’s public safety committee. “It is a dream and a goal. We really want to see this for our city.”

The city and other community leaders approached the hospital in fall of 2020 to begin a conversation about UPMC providing space on one of its campuses, according to Tyler Wagner, public relations manager at UPMC Williamsport.

“Preliminary discussions continue related to the details of this proposed partnership,” Wagner said.

Both Damon Hagan, city police chief, and Mark Killian, city fire chief, advocate for the long-term construction of a shared building that will enable teamwork within a larger and more modern headquarters.

“We’re identifying needs and looking at working together as a team,” Hagan said.

The current locations of both groups do not meet present needs, according to both Hagan and Killian. And while the two are making the best of the situations they respectively face, Hagan said they need a modern space specifically tailored to their needs to achieve maximum efficiency.

“Our city police department is in City Hall, which is not really conducive to their needs,” said Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter. “It would be much more efficient for (the police and fire departments) to be centralized, especially if it is one central location in the city where they can get to various parts of the city.”

In 1979, city police moved into City Hall, which itself is an old Post Office, and they have done the best they can to make the building meet the department’s needs despite not being an ideal location.

Individuals must walk through the police station to gain access to city hall, while parking behind the building is limited, according to Hagan. Additionally, the department lacks a fence and a distance barrier — hallmarks of modern police stations that help secure the building, Hagan said.

Ultimately, space is limited inside the headquarters. Hagan explained some laws require police to store homicide evidence for 75 years, which quickly limits storage space when something like a car becomes marked as evidence.

City fire is working from an outdated fire station as well. Decades ago, it was more advantageous for city fire to use several smaller stations to increase response times. However, with the advent of modern fire engines that can cover distance faster, these satellite locations have become less useful.

Killian explained the fire department vacated six of the eight fire stations it used to inhabit, and has focused on one location as its headquarters, with another reserved for storage.

The problem with this arrangement is that the fire department is using an older and smaller building as its main location, which does not have enough space to efficiently headquarter the department and store equipment needed to react efficiently.

Certain equipment used by the fire department needs to have controlled storage conditions to prevent it from degrading, conditions that cannot be met if a fire engine is producing exhaust in the same bay that equipment is being stored.

While new but separate locations for each department would certainly result in greater productivity, Hagan and Killian alluded to cost-saving benefits of constructing one, larger building.

Buildings cost money to heat, and Hagan and Killian see a cost-saving advantage in sharing the locker rooms, training areas, weight rooms and more in one building as opposed to having two separate buildings where the two departments each have those things.

However, consolidating different departments into a shared building can have other more abstract effects, according to Hagan.

“Combining the police department and fire department (into one building) is the smarter way to go and creates an environment of teamwork, efficiency and modern professionalism,” Hagan said.

Hagan explained that city police and fire departments partner when responding to different scenarios, and furthermore often complete training with one another.

“The goal is efficiency and service,” Killian said. “Teamwork is harder when we are fragmented. We respond to incidents together and provide mutual training between departments.”

Combining the two into a shared space will not just slash an electric bill; it will allow both departments to build upon a cooperative mindset, which will have indirect results on efficiency in the field, according to Hagan.

“A professional workplace has an immediate effect on morale,” Hagan said. “Morale has a lasting effect on productivity.”

There are many choices yet to be made in regard to such a building, however. Hagan said the goal is to make an investment that will last 20-30 years, and is in no hurry to start the process. He wants to get it right in one go.

Hagan and Killian continue to hold out hope for a long-term solution that will allow the police and fire department to continue serving the county for the next few decades.

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