By Jim Walsh GSN Staff Writer
Gilbert’s police and fire departments are coming of age in more ways than one.
As the town grows into a major municipality police and fire officials have few other options than to pursue construction of a joint training facility.
Gilbert’s public safety agencies have grown into major departments and need training facilities of their own to replenish their ranks as veteran officers and firefighters reach retirement age, said Police Chief Mike Soelberg and Assistant Fire Chief Rob Duggan.
In many ways, Gilbert’s police and fire departments are following a similar path as Chandler’s police and fire departments – though the town is several steps behind that city.
While Gilbert is seeking voter approval for funding, Chandler is opening the first phase of its new Public Safety Training Center this week.
The importance of such training cannot be overstated, Soelberg and Duggan said. Police and firefighters must perform under stress in the proper manner because mistakes can have catastrophic results.
Police are under greater scrutiny than ever before, with expectations high as their actions recorded by body cameras are examined and critiqued by the public.
“If you fail to train properly, you will pay millions of dollars in a lawsuit,’’ Soelberg said.
Chandler Police Chief Sean Duggan said it makes sense for police and fire departments to train together because they end up working side-by-side at a major incident anyway. Sharing resources when possible always makes sense, saving the taxpayer money by avoiding duplicative facilities.
In October, Chandler is planning to train every police officer and firefighter in active-shooter drills at the new Chandler joint academy.
“At any point, any one of us could be a first responder. We need to be in synch with fire,’’ Duggan said.
“Our job is changing at an exponential rate, from new crimes to community expectations to technology,’’ he said. “The need for quality training has never been more important than it is today.’’
Gilbert’s Rob Duggan, who is not related to Chandler’s Duggan, said that for firefighters, mistakes must be avoided because “typically, we pay our toll in deaths or significant injuries.’’
Although Gilbert is usually ranked as among the safest communities, it is ludicrous to assume that nothing will ever happen, Gilbert’s Soelberg and Duggan said.
Three of the biggest fires in the East Valley during the past five years have been in Gilbert, involving a lumberyard and two apartment complexes.
“It’s big-city denial. We grew up so quickly,’’ Gilbert’s Duggan said.
White supremacist J.T. Ready also shot four people to death, including a 15-month-old girl, before turning the gun on himself in a normally quiet Gilbert neighborhood on May 2, 2012.
“We can re-create any threat or future threat our town could face’’ through the facilities planned at Gilbert’s new training center, Soelberg said.
The most pressing need for the training center, they argue, is an anticipated surge in retirements in the near future – a situation all public safety agencies typically face because of benefits and rules set by the Arizona state pension system.
“These people hired in the 1990s and early 2000s are coming up on their retirement eligibility,’’ although employees usually retire on a staggered basis because of different circumstances and not all at once, Duggan said.
Duggan and Soelberg said 42 percent of Gilbert police officers and firefighters will be eligible for retirement in 2020 and 85 percent will be eligible in 2025.
“We have to be prepared to replace these officers, both police and fire,’’ Soelberg said. “We have to prepare for attrition as our own people retire.’’
“We are not replacing like for like. We are replacing individuals with decades of experience and certifications with newer, less-experienced officers and fire fighters,” Soelberg told the Town Council at a recent meeting.
In the next five years, the police department will have to hire and train a minimum of 180 officers to accommodate town growth and attrition. Fire will have to hire and train a minimum of 60 in same time period.
Although the Gilbert public safety agencies traditionally have sent recruits to regional training academies or academies offered by other departments, not enough spots are available to accommodate their needs, Duggan said.
“We can’t replace the bodies that are leaving,’’ Duggan said. Academies in other cities are filling up, he said, “because they are replacing people too.’’
Duggan said Gilbert has 197 firefighters, with the last academy class trained in Mesa.
“We’re begging for space in Mesa, Tempe or Chandler’’ training academies,” Duggan said.
He explained that ongoing training is held in a classroom in a rented industrial building where true-to-life scenarios cannot be accommodated.
Gilbert police have 13 recruits in training at the Mesa Police Academy, and three more in training at the Phoenix Police Training Academy, Soelberg said. Another eight Gilbert recruits recently graduated from the Mesa academy. In all, the Gilbert police have 276 officers and 10 vacant positions.
Gilbert and Chandler, two of the East Valley’s fastest-growing communities during the last two decades, both reached a juncture where they had to address their long-term training needs.
Because of growth, Chandler and Gilbert are now similar in size, based upon U.S. Census data. Chandler is Arizona’s fourth largest city with 253,000 residents, while Gilbert is ranked seventh with 242,000 residents.
The opening of Chandler’s training facility puts it about four years ahead of Gilbert, which started planning its training facility in 2005. The Gilbert training facility was put on hold during the Great Recession, when funds were scarce.
While the Chandler and Gilbert training centers are both joint facilities for police and firefighters, there are some notable differences as well.
Among the most important differences is that Chandler added on to a facility that opened in 1998 on land donated by Intel, while Gilbert is building an entirely new structure.
In both municipalities, police and fire officials are avoiding needless duplication of similar facilities by sharing auditoriums and classrooms. The joint facilities have sections, however, that are devoted to each agency.
Examples include new firing ranges planned for police in both municipalities and burn buildings used by firefighters to simulate different types of fires.
Gilbert police and fire are both planning independent training academies when the center eventually opens.
The Gilbert Town Council voted 5-2 last month to place a $65.3 million bond issue on the Nov. 6 election ballot, but the overall cost is projected at $84.6 million.
Construction on Gilbert’s facility, near Pecos and Power roads, would start in April 2019 and the project would take about two years to complete if voters approved the bond issue in November.
The Chandler Fire Department has operated its own training academy for years at the site on Dobson Road south of Queen Creek Road, but Chandler police will continue to send recruits to the Phoenix police regional training facility.
Gilbert’s training center also will have a driving track, which is not available at the Chandler facility. Gilbert and Mesa still share jail facilities, with Chandler police booking suspects into the Gilbert jail to avoid needless long trips to Phoenix jails.
Chandler’s Sean Duggan said he has had informal, preliminary discussions with Gilbert police about sharing the use of Gilbert’s track someday, but that would be in the distant future.