At last Thursday’s unveiling of the city’s annual public safety report for 2022, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton took the occasion to announce a few new incentives that are meant to help recruit and retain firefighters and police officers.
Among those incentives is a $100,000 no-interest housing down payment loan that is completely forgivable at the rate of $10,000 a year for up to 10 police officers and 10 firefighters—if they buy a house inside the city limits.
The recruitment challenge can be seen in the current staffing levels.
At Thursday’s event, Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff announced the hire of five new officers, who will start at the end of February. That puts the department’s staffing level at 88 sworn officers, which is still 17 short of the budgeted number of 105.
Even though vacancies among Bloomington’s firefighters have in the last few years not been as many as among sworn police, on Thursday Hamilton noted that there are currently 9 vacancies among the 99 firefighter positions.
One of the extras that Hamilton announced for firefighters is a bonus payment for 2023, which is equivalent to a 3-percent increase in annual salary. When added to the 2-percent increase that was in the fire union’s contract, that brought firefighters up to a 5-percent increase for 2023 compared to 2022, which is on par with the rest of the non-union city workforce.
Hamilton said that he’ll be looking to tap American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help pay for the new incentives.
Responding to a question from The B Square, Hamilton said that he could not say if his administration will be voluntarily recognizing the 911 dispatcher’s union, which they recently voted to form. “We can’t answer that right now. We’re in discussions with them and look forward to resolving that in short order,” Hamilton said.
Responding to another question from the B Square, Hamilton said before the end of the year, the renovation work would start, to make the western part of the Showers building ready for the planned move of the police department from the 3rd Street station to the same building where city hall is located.
That’s a move made possible by the city council’s recent approval, on a 5–4 vote, of the Showers building purchase agreement.
“The planning and design process for the Showers building will begin in short order,” Hamilton said. Hamilton said that the construction work would conclude sometime in 2024.
Hamilton indicated that “all of the interested parties, frontline police officers, fire administrators and the other folks who will be using the building” will be involved in the design process.
The police union had issued a statement the day before, on Feb. 8, calling on the administration to keep the union membership involved. The statement reads in part: “As the working design group is chosen, we hope that the union will continue to have a role to represent the working needs of the officers.”
The police union statement continues by asking the city council to maintain an active role in the Showers building renovation and remodeling process. “In addition, we would encourage the city council to appoint a member observer from the council, to ensure that the council’s own concerns are addressed and reported on in a timely manner to their body.”
Crime trends reported on Thursday by Diekhoff were consistent with the last few years. Violent crime was up in 2022 compared to 2021—5.8 percent more, by the city’s calculation. The overall crime rate is pegged by the city as decreasing—1 percent lower in 2022 compared to 2021.
Diekhoff highlighted an increase in the number of weapons-related calls, in particular guns, over the last three years.
Response times for the fire department are short of the goals, Moore reported. There’s three different time standards for fire response—turnout time (from alarm time to the time when a truck leaves the station), travel time (from the station to the scene of the fire), and the total response time. The goal is to hit the minimum time standards at least 90 percent of the time.
As an example, for turnout time, the goal as defined by national standards is 80 seconds. Bloomington’s fire department is hitting that goal just 53 percent the time.
After five years in a row with no fire fatalities in Bloomington, one death in a fire was recorded in 2022. During Thursday’s presentation, Moore characterized the one death as preventable.
Responding to an emailed followup question from The B Square, Moore wrote: “The fatality was caused by a person who was smoking in a bed at an assisted living facility while on oxygen.” Moore’s response continued, “The dangers of open flame to include smoking materials near oxygen are well documented.”
Last Thursday, among the several factors Moore cited for slower fire response times was “poor station design.” Asked by The B Square to elaborate on features that counted as poor station design, Moore pointed to the number of bathrooms. In Chicago, based on analysis of exception reports—occasions when response time standards weren’t met—more bathrooms were added. That improved nighttime response times. Some delays were caused by everyone getting up using the bathroom at the same time, Moore said.
Also related to response-time features of fire stations are fire poles. Moore said that the design for reconstruction of Station #1 on Fourth Street will not incorporate the fire pole exactly as it’s currently installed. Currently the pole goes from the third floor straight down to the first floor. But that design no longer meets code—because of the danger of dropping straight down 40 feet.
The current pole is also not used by all firefighters because they don’t feel comfortable using it. To make the fire pole compliant with code, Moore said, it has to be offset at each floor so that falling through the hole would mean a drop of just one floor.
Another option that can be considered, for descending more rapidly than running down the stairs, is to use a slide, Moore said.
Station #1 was abandoned after it was damaged in the June 2021 flood. The temporary station is in the old Bunger & Robertson building at 4th Street and College Avenue.
The timeline for the rebuilding of Station #1 at the same site—which funding was approved by the city council as part of the same step as the purchase agreement of Showers building—calls for starting the demolition and construction work by the end of the year, Moore said on Thursday.
Moore said contracts for the full engineering design would be going out to bid within the month. After that, a more precise timeline could be put on the Station #1 rebuild, Moore said.
Monroe County councilor Jennifer Crossley attended Thursday’s presentation. Crossley asked, “What do you see that the county can do to help raise the quality of public safety?”
Diekhoff responded by saying the city police and the county sheriff’s deputies have done a lot of joint training, and noted that there’s a combined critical incident response team (CIRT). At some point in the next few months, after new sheriff Ruben Marté has had a chance to settle in, Diekhoff said the two of them would sit down and look at some things that might benefit the city and the county.
Moore responded to Crossley’s question by pointing to the Monroe Fire Protection District and the Ellettsville fire department as partners. Moore said his annual goal is to always try to improve relationships with Bloomington fire department’s partners.