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Calling all cars, er, fire trucks

Within five years, police here will help put out fires - while their friends at the Fire Department put a stop to crime. That's the hope, anyway, of city officials who plan to merge the police and firefighters into a single public-safety department. The program began last month as the first class of 30 volunteers - 15 from each department - began training to perform the duties of a police officer and firefighter. City Manager Robert Bobb says the program will save the city $4.5 million during the phase-in period and reduce the number of officers in both departments from 383 before consolidation to 340.

Instead of having several firefighters waiting at the station for a call, there will be only two firefighters and a sergeant. The others will be on the street working as police officers, said Deputy Public Safety Director George Danz, formerly the fire chief. And officers in patrol cars will respond to fires. Members of the first group of cross-trained officers have more free time and receive 10 percent more pay than regular officers.

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''It's a lot more interesting,'' said one 20-year veteran firefighter. ''As a firefighter, some days you'd get a number of calls and other days you wouldn't get any. Police work is an everyday situation.''

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