Westerville police, fire divisions work to keep up with commercial, residential growth

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group

When the city of Westerville considers new developments – residential and commercial – much is taken into consideration by first responders.

These two aerial maps of Westerville's Westar development area – the top shown in 2018 and the bottom in 2020 – show improvements in infrastructure as development occurs.

Consider an area like Westar, for example. It's an area of Westerville that has seen tremendous commercial growth in recent years, including infrastructure improvements.

As ThisWeek reported in December, Tim Spencer of Trivium Development LLC is leading the way to bring a $6 million mixed-use building to the southeast corner of Polaris Parkway and Meridian Way.

Also consider residential growth, such as what's being proposed along Africa Road.

Westerville’s Planning Commission heard updates to what’s known as the Sharp Farm Redevelopment by Epcon Communities and Vincent Romanelli on Jan. 27.

The site is on the east side of Africa Road, south of Polaris Parkway and north of County Line Road.

Ron McMillin, the Westerville Division of Police assistant chief, said police look at the impact on public safety and response as developments such as these continue. 

Other considerations include traffic safety, such as road design, traffic volume, pedestrian crossings and traffic-calming measures. 

“We work closely with the traffic engineer's office on this,” he said.

Police also consider population density (residential versus commercial and single-resident versus high-density structures);use of the site or facility (business, entertainment, housing, lodging, hospital/medical) and crime prevention, encouraging design features that improve visibility and prevent crime, according to McMillin

Brian C. Miller, chief of the Westerville Division of Fire, said his department specifically looks at fire-apparatus road and building access, sprinkler-connection access, fire-hydrant locations, the types of construction (residential or commercial) and type of use at a property. 

A $6 million mixed-use building is planned at the southeast corner of Polaris Parkway and Meridian Way by Trivium Development LLC.

“Then we analyze the proposal to try and determine the impact it will have on our fire and EMS services,” he said. “Our fire-prevention bureau works very closely with our building department to make sure the buildings are built to the current fire code and are safe. Once the structure is completed, we continue to track all of our fire and EMS run data to make sure we are still providing adequate fire and EMS coverage to our response areas.”

Christa Dickey, the city's community-affairs director, said it’s important to note that staff are involved in development considerations from the onset of proposals or plans that go before the planning commission. 

“We have several layers of internal staff consultations and teams that review these types of things, particularly in the economic development and planning and development,” she said.

Adequate funding

Miller said the fire department reviews budgets annually and maintains a five-year budget plan to determine if additional revenue might be needed to keep up with growth.

“We look at current fund revenues, projected expenses and run volumes to determine if we need to expand or change our service-delivery models,” he said. 

Over the past 15 years, Miller said, the department has added a basic life-support transport vehicle and, within the past two years, upgraded that vehicle to an advanced life-support vehicle.  

“When our expenses begin to project that we will be outpacing our levy and other revenues, we then consider going to the ballot for either renewal of current fire levies or adding a new fire levy,” he said.

A proposed preliminary development plan by Epcon Communities and Vincent Romanelli shows 19.5 acres of commercial development, with 214,400 square feet of office space; 14.07 acres of multifamily residential, 33.33 acres of single-family residential and 21.56 acres of preserved green space.

Police are funded from the general fund, McMillin said, but there are special issues like the police/court facility that went on the ballot for voter consideration. 

Adequate staffing

McMillin said the police division hasn’t increased the size of the division significantly since 2000. 

“We would utilize the most appropriate formula to determine staffing needs when necessary,” he said.

The police division currently has 76 sworn officers assigned to three bureaus (patrol, investigations and community and professional services) covering 12.74 square miles, McMillin said.

The U.S. Census Bureau's QuickFacts page lists Westerville's population at 41,103 as of July 1, 2019.

Miller said the fire division continues to look at fire and EMS response data to determine if and when to expand personnel or change service-delivery models.  

“Our current firehouse locations are geographically adequate to provide coverage to both the city of Westerville and Blendon Township,” he said. “We also utilize mutual-aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions to cover calls if our department personnel are tied up on multiple runs at the same time.”

Miller said the fire division has 88 sworn full-time firefighters assigned to operations, prevention and fire-administration teams. 

The department also tries to maintain a staff of 20 part-time firefighters. 

The fire division covers an area of 19.03 square miles – 12.73 in the city of Westerville and 6.3 in Blendon Township – for about 48,500 city and township residents for fire and EMS.  

Number of calls for service

Both the police and fire divisions experienced a reduction in calls for service in 2020.

Dickey said the city has anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is at least partly why. People were either not out in public or avoiding hospitals and emergency rooms to the greatest extent possible, she said.

Police calls for service only, excluding self-initiated police activities, showed 14,391 in 2019, compared to 11,502 in 2020, according to McMillin.

The average response time (all data, including outliers) was four minutes, 19 secondsfor high-priority calls and 5:35 for low-priority calls in 2019, compared to 4:18 for high-priority calls and 5:10 for low-priority calls in 2020.

Miller said the fire department’s calls for service in 2019 totaled 8,226 – 2,358 fire and 5,868 EMS. In 2020, calls totaled 7,549 – 2,319 fire and 5,230 EMS.

He said the average response times for emergency calls from the time of dispatch to the time on the scene was 5:25 in 2019, compared to 5:35 in 2020.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla