Oakwood public safety officers train and “compete” across three disciplines every shift.
By Tracy Staley
Sarah Martin is a triple threat.
The Oakwood public safety officer is on duty in her Oakwood police uniform, completing paperwork at the station. Yet before she wraps up her 24-hour shift, she’ll walk down the hall to the fire station to clock in as a firefighter and medic.
“It’s the best of three worlds,” she says.
Martin and her fellow Oakwood public safety officers are rare breeds: trained and certified as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, or paramedics. Oakwood boasts the second oldest consolidated force in the country, and is one of 32 in the country to fully consolidate police and fire. Officers spend eight hours per shift on police duty, and the rest on fire or EMS.
“We get to do what we love, and at the same time, the level of the quality of services we can give to the community is that much better,” Martin says.
Martin started her career as a firefighter in a nearby city. But the rare public safety model in Oakwood drew her interest. In Oakwood, she could also pursue her desire to work in law enforcement and be a firefighter and medic, too.
The city’s response times are the fastest in the region, partially due to its compact size, but also because of the preparedness of the officer on patrol to respond to both fire and medical emergencies right away. Officers carry first-in medic bags and fire gear in their cruisers, making it easy to take the first steps while backup arrives. That morning, Martin and another officer responded to a medical emergency while on police duty, getting there before the medic. This “Johnny-on-the-spot” response keeps extreme emergencies at bay.
Structure fires rarely get out of hand and many lives are saved because of the quick response, says Chief Alex Bebris. Police on the scene can extinguish small fires before they escalate or respond to a medical crisis before the ambulance arrives.
For Oakwood, the model has worked for decades. It creates a sense of pride among officers and within the city. It attracted Martin to the job. After serving as a firefighter for five years in nearby Bellbrook, she wanted the opportunity to work in law enforcement, too.
“The pride comes with … being well-versed in all three fields,” Martin says. “For a city of this size, it’s perfect.”
Less than three square miles and with about 9,000 residents, Oakwood is a first-ring suburb known for its excellent schools, walkable streets and close-knit neighbors. It’s home to Hawthorn Hill, the mansion built by Orville and Wilbur Wright—on snowy days, children still sled down the sloping lawn. The first Dorothy Lane Market started here as a small grocery on Fall Hills Avenue and remains a city staple. Tongue in cheek, some residents call it, “The Dome,” a reference to its sometimes insular nature and low crime rate—the lowest in the region. It’s not uncommon for the weekly police log in the local paper to list thefts from unlocked cars and left-open garages. People feel safe, sometimes too much so, Bebris says. Residents become complacent and then get burned.
“Just because you live in Oakwood, it doesn’t mean you have an invisible force field around you,” Bebris says.
The flip side of working in a low crime area means Oakwood’s department has to find other ways to stay ready for violent crimes and large fires. They often run through scenarios and drills to keep sharp. Working all three disciplines during a 24-hour shift also helps.
Bebris came to Oakwood, in part, because of the safety record. After a career in urban environments in Wisconsin, Bebris was looking for a change.
“It’s a very different place to be,” he says of urban Milwaukee. “You don’t see the best sides of people.”
In Oakwood, he needed to go to fire school, as he would serve as both fire and police chief. Bebris put in the time, as do all officers who need the extra training to join the city’s safety force. Police and fire are different cultures, for sure. “Police will tell you that [firefighters] sit in a recliner and sleep,” he said “Fire guys have their own digs as well.”
Martin, who spent five years as a firefighter before coming to Oakwood, says the force is together so much that they create a family-like culture. Because most of their calls are police work, they are most tested and stretched when there is a structure fire, she says. Car wrecks are the most likely place to see their multiple skills come into play.
“‘I’ve crawled in the back of a car through a broken window, held the c-spine and rendered patient care, but then once the medic gets there and takes over, you have to crawl back out of the car and start taking witness statements and trying to figure out what happened, do a track report, all that kind of stuff,” Martin says.
Cross-training officers is expensive, but has been a long-term cost savings for the small city, which has faced financial shortfalls in recent years, he says.
“There’s pride in being part of something that’s been going on for so long,” Bebris says. “And being part of continuing that.”
How it works:
Oakwood’s public safety officers work 24-hour shifts, with eight on police duty and 16 as fire and emergency medical.
Oakwood engine response time to scene: 4.17 minutes in 2013
National average: 6 minutes
Medical Rescue Times
Oakwood first unit on scene: 2.25 minutes, 2013
National average: 4-6 minutes
Oakwood Medic response time: 3.81 minutes, 2013
National average: 13 minutes