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Wheeling Public Safety Committee Discusses Reducing Police Sergeant Numbers

WHEELING — The city’s Public Safety Committee heard from chiefs of the Wheeling Police Department and Wheeling Fire Department on requests to improve their respective agencies, including how to prevent repeated false alarms.

Committee members discussed a potential reduction in police sergeant positions and an ordinance to stop repeat false medical alarms at properties in Wheeling at the body’s meeting Thursday.

Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger addressed the committee, including members Councilman Dave Palmer and Councilwoman Melinda Koslik, asking for the number of mandated sergeant positions at WPD to be reduced from 20 to 15.

The department currently employs 18 sergeants, who are intended work as first-line supervisors who mentor subordinate officers. However, many WPD sergeants work beats and supervise no officers or programs due to the high number of positions, Schwertfeger said.

About one third of the police department’s personnel are sergeants, Schwertfeger said, adding that he believes no other police agency has such a high percentage of the position.

“It’s something that simply is not needed and I think detracts from the success of our department,” Schwertfeger said.

The reduction would occur through attrition and not involve immediate cuts, he said, and it would result in about $27,000 in savings for the department annually. The five sergeant positions would eventually be replaced with patrolman first class, or PFC, roles.

Palmer and Koslik approved a motion to reduce WPD’s number of sergeant positions from 20 to 15 and replace them with PFCs.

Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday asked Schwertfeger what other personnel changes the department needs. He said WPD currently has eight vacancies, but once those are filled he plans to approach the committee to request additional personnel.

Also at the meeting, Fire Chief Larry Helms addressed the committee to propose enacting an ordinance to fine property owners for repeat, false emergency medical services alarms. The committee then forwarded the request to City Council.

The department faces problems with repeat false EMS alarms in the city from high-rises with antiquated alarm systems, Helms said. One high-rise in particular, the name of which he declined to mention, has had 76 false EMS alarms in the past year and won’t cooperate with the city to update its alarms, he said.

The fine would function the same as an existing WPD ordinance to reduce false alarms, Helms said. Through that ordinance, building owners are fined $50 for a second false alarm and up to $400 for the ninth and subsequent offenses.

The calls have put significant strain on the fire department, which sends trained EMS professionals to each false incident, Helms said. Often, the antiquated alarms cannot be traced to a specific room.

“We’re spending quite a bit of resources responding to these false calls … we’re spending manpower and fuel on the matter,” he said. “What we would like to do is invoke the same penalties as the police department.”

Schwertfeger said the police department has seen a reduction in false alarm calls by 40 percent since its false alarm ordinance was enacted in 2016. Rose Humway-Warmuth, city solicitor, added that the fine functions as a deterrent.

Next, City Council could consider an ordinance regarding the false EMS calls at a future meeting.

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