DALLAS — The city of Dallas has hired a consultant to help gauge support for solutions to improve its police and fire stations — including building a facility to house both departments.
Campbell DeLong Resources Inc., the firm Southwestern Polk Rural Fire Protection District hired to help with its recent bond campaign, will run focus groups on the topic. Depending on the outcome of the focus groups, the firm will conduct a telephone poll.
The city has considered consolidating the departments into one building, adding on to the current fire station on Southeast Shelton Street. The fire station would go through a significant remodel, and the police station would be new. Secure parking for police vehicles is included in that plan. The cost is estimated at about $14 million, according to a preliminary evaluation by architectural firm Makenzie.
Another option considered is remodeling the fire station and moving the police station to another building downtown, which would also be remodeled. The cost of that option is $14.7 million.
Police Chief Tom Simpson reported to the council that his department is stretched out over two floors of city hall and at the city shops. Locker rooms and interview rooms are inadequate, and officers don’t have secure parking for their personal vehicles or patrol cars, he said.
“We’ve had officers over the years have their personal vehicles vandalized,” he said. “We’ve had gas stolen from our patrol cars.”
Dallas Fire & EMS Chief Fred Hertel said in his department, neither the fire station nor the EMS station has adequate sleeping facilities for 24-hour staff. The fire station lacks sleeping rooms entirely. He said 24-hour paid staff is the direction the fire service industry is moving.
“As we know, the volunteer service of today is a dwindling fact of life. That’s across the nation,” Hertel said. “We are in that transition time, I think, with our coverage.”
Two full-time firefighters are working day shifts, thanks to a grant expiring in November 2019 and the city hired seasonal firefighters during the past two fire seasons.
“Those are reducing our response time and giving us better coverage in the daytime, when most of our volunteers are at work,” he said.
The cost estimates for facility improvements are higher than city staff anticipated, and left members of the Dallas City Council questioning whether voters would support a bond at that price tag.
Martha DeLong, the director of market research at the Portland firm, said focus groups are designed to provide clarity on that and other questions. She said people in focus groups are presented with the problem and proposed solutions to get their reactions — and suggestions for changing those solutions.
Those included in focus groups are carefully selected, DeLong said.
“We want to get a good random sample of citizens into a room to talk about these issues. We don’t want to have in the room a sample of people who come to public meetings, because they tend to skew one way or another,” she said. “We want to hear from the middle section, the people who are going to go out and vote.”
Focus groups are where agencies find out if voters are aware of the issue in question, the likely response to proposed solutions, and why people approve or reject options, DeLong said.
“We don’t ask, ‘What will make you vote yes,’” she said. “We want to know what information do voters need to make a decision.”
DeLong said often focus groups will bring up questions that agencies hadn’t considered, and that may change the strategy of a bond campaign.
“That is the place that you are able to have a really in-depth conversation and drill down,” said City Manager Ron Foggin.
DeLong said focus groups and polls may tell an agency that pursuing a bond isn’t worthwhile at that point. She said if the positive response is less than 45 percent, she recommends agencies take more time to talk to voters about the issue.
Voters were split on Southwestern’s bond after a poll, but responses from voters helped the district change its message.
“It totally reorganized my talking points,” said Hertel, who also is Southwest’s chief. “And immediately ... the feedback was better.”
The cost to hire Campbell DeLong is $37,000, with half paying for conducting two focus groups and a report to the council with a recommendation.
The other half — if it’s necessary after focus groups — pays for a telephone poll and final report and recommendation to the council.