As new homes and businesses have come to Greenwood, firefighters and police officers are being called to more traffic accidents, medical runs and thefts.
Construction is starting on nearly 300 new homes per year, meaning an increase in police calls, such as thefts, vehicle break-ins or domestic issues. And about 100 commercial building permits were issued in 2017, which can mean more shoplifting reports at retail stores or just managing traffic around new warehouses and industrial facilities, Greenwood Police Assistant Chief Matt Fillenwarth said.
For the police department, the growth means staying fully staffed is important, Fillenwarth said.
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“We go up about 1,000 runs per year, so there are clearly more people living here and needing police,” he said.
As the population in local communities grow, so too does the workload for local fire and police departments.
Across the county, multiple police and fire departments have had a continued increase or stayed nearly steady in runs each year. In 2017, some of the biggest jumps came from local fire departments. For example, Bargersville firefighters were called to 29 percent more accidents, fires or medical emergencies before December was over, compared to all of 2016. In Greenwood, the amount was up 5 percent, and in White River Township, the increase was 9 percent. Franklin Fire also had an increase, but that was due to the department getting a new, more accurate tracking system, Fire Chief Dan McElyea said.
For fire chiefs, the biggest concern is staffing.
Multiple fire departments in the county rely on part-time firefighters to help fill in when full-time firefighters need to be off, but fire chiefs said that system has drawbacks. Their goal is to hire more full-time firefighters in the coming years.
In the last several months, the Greenwood Fire Department lost 44 part-time firefighters — many who took full-time positions with other fire departments after getting a few months of training in Greenwood, Chief Darin Hoggatt said.
The fire department has 36 full-time firefighters and 84 part-time firefighters, who they rely on heavily to help fill shifts, he said. The fire department has been able to add some full-time positions by combining two part-time positions, he said. The staffing level is where it needs to be, Hoggatt said.
But the number of calls the department is receiving, such as for accidents, medical emergencies and fires, has been on the rise in recent years. The goal is to have the minimum number of staffing for all their trucks be filled by full-time firefighters. But in order to do that, they would need to eliminate 18 part-time positions to create nine new full-time positions, he said.
At the Bargersville Fire Department, officials want to hire 12 new full-time firefighters, but the cost is high — about $80,000 per firefighter per year — and they haven’t been able to get the funding, Chief Jason Ramey said.
In recent years, the fire department got a grant for three new firefighters and hired six emergency workers to staff their ambulances, which are being paid for with revenue from the service. But their run numbers continue to go up, with firefighters and ambulances responding to more than 400 more calls in 2017, compared to 2015. They are looking at options in order to hire new staff, but were recently turned down for another staffing grant, Ramey said.
“We need additional people. We need additional people now,” Ramey said.
The fire department currently has 36 full-time staff and about 20 part-time staff. They partner with other fire departments in the area to help with calls as needed, but many other departments are understaffed too, and some of the ones further south in the county are all volunteer, he said.
His goal is to hire three new firefighters at a time — one for each shift — and if they were able to hire as many as he wanted, that would allow the fire department to have one additional truck ready to run at each station, he said. Guidelines say that fire departments should have four firefighters per truck, and currently Bargersville is often running with three. That means that firefighters have to leave a truck at the station when they go on a run because they don’t have enough people to staff two engines and an aerial truck, which is what is needed when fighting a fire, Ramey said.
Just north in White River Township, the first focus is on ambulance service, and Chief Jeremy Pell wants to add another ambulance to the two already serving the community, he said.
One vehicle accident can easily cause both of the fire department’s ambulances to be tied up for an hour or more, and with about 10 ambulances countywide, at times all ambulances are in use, Pell said.
And with State Road 37 planned as the route for Interstate 69, the fire department needs to plan for a big increase in calls, Pell said. One state study showed their calls could increase anywhere from 75 percent to 300 percent once I-69 is built, he said. But Pell also is concerned with what will happen when the new interstate is under construction, such as when the sections further south are finished and then traffic reaches State Road 37, which has traffic lights and streets where vehicles turn onto the highway, increasing the chance of accidents, he said.
That means the fire department also needs more staff, and he wants to continue working to replace part-time firefighter positions with full-time, he said.
Currently, the fire department has 58 full-time employees, and 62 part-time. And while Pell appreciates those part-time firefighters, that isn’t their full-time job. And many of those firefighters are young and have families to support, meaning their full-time job takes priority, he said. For example, each year, they hire 12 part-time firefighters, and typically by the end of the year, only four remain, he said.
The fire department also has to change with the area. Nearly 30 years ago, when Pell joined the department, the area had young, blue collar workers who could more easily volunteer with the fire department and come on runs. But now, the area has changed, and many of the residents are working and commuting to other areas, he said.
“For me, that is undeniable that the fire department should grow with the community. That is the first step. There is a direct proportion between population growth and the need for public safety,” Pell said.
In Franklin, the number of calls for police has stayed consistently between 15,000 and 17,000 the last few years, but Chief Tim O’Sullivan would still like to add more officers — increasing the number on each shift from nine to 12 or 13, he said.
The added officers aren’t needed for an increase in the number of calls, but instead for consistency in staffing, he said. For example, the department has at least two officers out on medical leave, he said.
The department recently also increased the number of people in its investigations division to six, with two in special investigations. That increase is necessary for multiple reasons, from the increase in drug cases to the goal to have one person that specializes in crimes against children, he said.
He also wants officers to continue focusing on community policing and being proactive with traffic enforcement, increasing bicycle patrols, having a police dog on each shift and spending time in the schools, O’Sullivan said.
“We allocate our resources based on the community need,” he said.
Sheriff Doug Cox also pays close attention to what his deputies are doing, including responding to calls to add extra patrols in an area for speeders, which is a common request, he said. He doesn’t have quotas, but he does make sure deputies are having contacts with the public, such as through warnings or tickets, routinely, he said.
And he brings it to deputies’ attention if the numbers are going down, he said.
Calls at the sheriff’s office have also stayed steady the last few years, but that number doesn’t take into account multiple other factors, such as how much time each call takes, Cox said. For example, based on the number of warrants deputies serve, the county could use a team just for that, but that isn’t possible due to staffing, he said.
The sheriff’s office has 56 merit deputies, and could ideally use more, Cox said. But the county also needs additional jail officers, with the Johnson County jail routinely overcrowded and officials considering a possible expansion.
In recent years, Greenwood police have been able to hire new officers, bringing the department to 64 sworn officers, and changing the dynamic of the police department, Fillenwarth said.
In the last five years, the department has hired nearly 30 new officers for either new positions or to replaces ones who quit or retired, he said. Currently, the department has three new officers at the training academy, with two more set to retire this year and one who recently resigned, he said.
Having so many officers with less than five years of experience has both its pros and cons, Fillenwarth said.
Many of the officers are younger and more aggressive, meaning they are excited about doing their job and truly engaged. But that first five years is really the time period when officers decide if they want to stick with the job, he said.