garage fire, 9.24.2017

Firefighters pull off garage siding Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, on the 200 block of 29th Street.

KAYLA WOLF

Between 1990 and 2016, Lincoln’s population is estimated to have grown by nearly half.

To put that figure in perspective, those nearly 90,000 new residents exceed the number of people in all but two cities and three counties in the state. It’s as if a full Memorial Stadium was added to Lincoln’s population over that span.

In that time, the investment in the city’s public safety hasn’t kept up with its booming population. Lincoln needs to be diligent not to overextend itself – particularly as city leaders wrestle with the city council over spending authority – but it’s clear that more firefighters, paramedics and police officers are needed to handle a community that continues to add substantial amounts of people and land.

As Public Safety Director Tom Casady correctly noted, “You’re spreading the same number of people over a larger and larger area. You can do that to a certain point. But, at some point, you have to deal with that growth.”

Lincoln has taken the first step in that direction, hiring six new Lincoln Police Department recruits who will start at the police academy in January, but the process must be a gradual one.

After all, the problem has been a gradual one, too. Between 1991 and 2016, for instance, the number of Lincoln firefighters per 10,000 residents has decreased from 12.3 to 8.9 – with only eight positions added over the same timeframe that the city added 87,000 residents.

Lincoln Fire and Rescue has seen its overtime costs grow from roughly $531,000 in the 2015 fiscal year to $687,000 for the most recent one, according to Fire Chief Micheal Despain. As those costs have increased, union president Ron Trouba told the Journal Star that job-related injuries and response times have done so as well.

Complicating matters is the length of time the training and certification processes take. For every firefighter, paramedic or police officer hired, the vital steps needed for that individual to be able to perform the requisite duties of the position can stretch as long as 18 months – a span in which the city is projected to add some 5,000 residents.

Public safety is among the most important investments of any municipality’s tax dollar, and Lincoln’s first responders have done a stellar job protecting and serving residents. Many Lincolnites have praised the work of Lincoln’s officers, firefighters and paramedics in recent letters to the editor. The city’s violent crime rate, too, has plummeted, in line with national trends.

To keep up that high level of service that Lincoln – and any city, really – expects and needs of its public safety departments, continued investment in first responders must remain a priority.

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