Columbia public safety outgrows its space

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Columbia’s population has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, and emergency departments would like to see the public safety complex that houses the police, fire and EMS agencies reflect that growth.

The facility at 1020 N. Main Street has been the subject of several improvement plans since the public safety departments began using the property in 1988, but only minor upgrades have been made there over three decades.

Prompted by recent comments from former Columbia Police Chief Jerry Paul and current chief Jason Donjon about improving and updating the public safety complex, the Republic-Times spoke with the heads of each department.

Donjon, Columbia Fire Department Chief Mike Roediger and Columbia Emergency Medical Services Chief Kim Lamprecht all shared the same view – the departments are each outgrowing their respective facilities.

The Columbia Police Department was the first to be housed at its current location. Since 1988, the department has occupied a structure that was originally used as Luhr Bros., Inc. offices before that company relocated to West Sand Bank Road. 

“It’s a good office building,” Donjon said, adding “we’ve done the best we can retrofitting” it for police business. However, he said there are improvements he would like to see made for the sake of safety.

Donjon explained that suspects in custody are transferred from police vehicles in public view and they also need to traverse stairs into the building. He said a “sally port” add-on would provide a controlled, safer way to enter the building.

A drive-thru sally port would allow a police vehicle to enter an enclosed area for transfer on the same level as the building and then allow the vehicle to exit.

Donjon said the port would provide safety “for them and us.”

Donjon also noted the current station does not have holding cells for people in police custody.

“The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department has been very gracious” in providing space for suspects arrested in Columbia, Donjon said, but there have been times officers are unable to drive to Waterloo in a timely manner.

Donjon noted that if an officer gets a call to respond while someone is in custody, the individual is handcuffed to a chair and monitored by an on-duty dispatcher until transportation can be arranged.

Columbia EMS facilities are also in need of improvement – especially since the department has had full-time employees for over a decade, according to Lamprecht. 

The department began as a volunteer operation in 1972 and then began full-time staffing in 2006 on a per-call basis and hourly in 2010. They also currently staff two ambulances full-time.

“Twenty years prior, the EMS was volunteers who had pagers similar to the fire department and we would drive to the station when we were paged,” Lamprecht recalled. “Now we have five full-time crew members and the chief trying to occupy the trailer. There’s not enough room for people to sleep” during the time when the overnight employees rest between calls.

The trailer is a 2007 14-foot-by-64-foot single-wide that was purchased by the city in 2011 from a federal surplus program.

In addition to more room for personnel, Lamprecht said EMS needs space for emergency vehicles. The two primary ambulances and backup ambulance are parked in the firehouse garage, which also houses the EMS administrative office.

The reserve ambulance and the EMS chief’s vehicle stay in parking sports near the trailer. Since Lamprecht stores medical equipment and medication inside the vehicle, it must be unloaded every evening and supplies are put back every morning because it is parked outside. 

Also, when outside temperatures get too cold, Lamprecht has to start her vehicle and run the heat to prevent medications from falling below required temperatures. 

Like the police station, the Columbia Fire Department is also housed in a retrofitted building originally used as a Luhr Bros. maintenance facility. 

The department moved into that space in 1992 after manufacturing company Progressive Recovery Inc. moved to Dupo. 

“The building is aging,” Roediger said. “We’re just running out of space. Trucks are getting bigger and it would be nice to have a few more bays.”

Roediger said he would like to “expand or improve” the current facilities, but “it depends on what the city does with the police and EMS,” adding the fire department has “a great working relationship” with both departments.

Along with increased population, several factors have added to the volume of service calls and service area for the different departments in since 1988.

The 1990 U.S. Census showed Columbia’s population at 5,524 compared to over 10,500 estimated residents per the most recent count. 

In 1992, the Palmer Road interchange at Route 3 and I-255 opened. That same year, plans were finalized to expand Route 3 to four lanes – including the  Admiral Parkway stretch of highway in Columbia and from the Route 158 interchange south to Waterloo – resulting in more traffic stops and accidents in addition to more vehicles on the highway as the entire region’s population increased. 

Since that time, the city and rural fire districts merged into a single department in 2011. The fire department now covers the city limits as well as unincorporated areas in Monroe and St. Clair counties.

EMS transitioned from being a volunteer organization when the department added full-time employees. A 2018 city referendum also changed Columbia EMS funding from county revenue to a tax paid by residents in the fire protection area and classified the department as a “third service” of the city’s police department.

The Columbia Police Department has since become one of two 911 dispatch centers in Monroe County with five full-time employees. The center handled over 12,000 calls in 2020. In addition to five dispatchers, there are 20 officers in the police department, an administrative assistant and two record clerks.

The fire department currently has 42 members and EMS has five full-time paramedics and between 15 and 20 part-time paramedics and EMTs.

Lamprecht reported a significant increase in service calls for the past five years alone. There were 913 calls in 2015, with the annual call number jumping to 1,542 at the end of 2020 and as high as 1,604 in 2019.

Donjon noted that all buildings in the public safety complex are “in compliance,” but all three chiefs noted they would like to either expand current facilities or find an alternative that reflects the increase in service.

The complex has been in need of updates since the city purchased the property.  

In 1991, Columbia hired a company to assess the needs of the complex. The city council at the time put a $400,000 cap on spending, which led to items such as paint, a pump valve and storage room being omitted from initial plans. 

When bids for the project came in above budget during the beginning of 1992, more items were cut.

At the time, two aldermen opposed the upgrades. Both said the project would be too expensive. Alderman Michael Conrad said the city should “take its lumps” and start over with a functional building, according to a Jan. 22, 1992, Republic-Times article.

Conrad was also an alderman when the issue was revisited in 2006. FGM Architects was hired to perform a space and needs assessment for the public safety complex.

The report outlined several possible projects for new facilities or improvements to existing facilities that ranged from $4 million to $9.5 million. The assessment called for more storage space and dormitory areas for personnel in addition to equipment specific to each department.

Two meetings in 2006 were held to discuss the results. At the July meeting, plans were tentatively made to have two service locations, the “main” location being an updated site at the current location with a “satellite” station to be constructed either near the Monroe County YMCA or near the then-proposed Columbia Crossing development in the northwest part of the city.  

Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards said then that his department did not need a satellite location but they did want a “secure” facility, and joining the administrative offices of the fire department and EMS with police would be feasible “as long as there is a secure separation between the two areas.”

Roediger and then-EMS Chief Ken Buss both said a satellite station would help with response time in accordance with a study recommendation provided at the time by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association. 

Conrad called for a “master plan” to be created for all departments to outline growth.

All of these ideas were discarded after the Columbia Crossing development, which was to provide much of the project funding, was rejected by the city council after a long, contentious  and eventually legal battle.

When contacted recently to clarify aspects of the public safety complex’s history, Conrad noted he was not opposed to providing necessities for the departments, but he wanted to see it done in a responsible manner.

Apart from the city council voting in November 2006 to explore “land options” for a “substation” or expansion of the current complex, the only change that came about as a result of the $20,000 FGM study was an improvement in emergency response times.  

With the lack of any significant action at the complex since then, Conrad pointed out the city is “back where we were in the 1990s.”

Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm said there are “preliminary” conversations regarding the future of the complex, but the city is waiting for results of the April 6 municipal election to “engage the new administration” and move forward with any plans.

Columbia mayoral candidate Wes Hoeffken, who is currently the city clerk, said he has already met with the fire and police departments about the future of the facilities.

“We’ve got to do something,” Hoeffken said, emphasizing that the issue has become too critical for further delays but also adding “there’s no easy fix.”

“We’ve started by getting ideas on paper,” Hoeffken continued, saying that once the needs of all departments are on the table, the city can prioritize the departments’ needs. 

If overlapping needs exist, the city can examine a “better use of tax dollars” and maximize improvements common to all three departments though joint-use facilities. 

Hoeffken added he believes the EMS department has the greatest need currently and they “have to have housing.” 

Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill, also a candidate for Columbia mayor, declined to comment at this time.

“I haven’t had a chance to sit down and review” the matter, Hill said.

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