The rapid growth North Augusta has enjoyed the last three decades is causing problems at the city’s public safety department, which is unable to respond as quickly to emergency calls now because its personnel level has been stagnant.
As a result, the average response time by North Augusta Department of Public Safety has soared to more than nine minutes in 2013, compared to less than five minutes in 1981.
Since 1981, the city has more than doubled its land area and surged past 20,000 in population. In that same span, the number of public safety officers on patrol at any given time has remained virtually unchanged, North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said.
“We’ve increased the amount of officers over the years, but it’s been a good while since we’ve increased the amount per shift,” he said. “In 1981, there were seven officers working each shift. Now there are eight.”
That number doesn’t take into account officers on vacation or out sick. According to the 2013 North Augusta Forward, a compilation of budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year by city department heads, “there are almost no days when the entire shift is working.” The department, which has 56 sworn officers, typically operates with shifts of five or six officers. Lt. Tim Thornton said though he doesn’t know how many officers the city employed in 1981, the size of the force has grown very little.
“Geographically, North Augusta was smaller than it is right now, so it didn’t take as long for us to get from one place to another when responding to emergency calls,” Thornton said. “The city has grown and the speed limit on the highways haven’t changed, so we have to respond in the same manner.”
The shortage of officers also hurts the city’s bottom line.
Traffic units officers are forced to take calls when patrol officers are tied down elsewhere, according to the North Augusta Forward. The unit is responsible for producing more than 60 percent of the fines and forfeitures that are generated by the department.
“When they are on patrol calls, they are not issuing tickets,” the document said.
While the increase in total area from 8.16 square miles in 1981 to 21.8 square miles in 2012 has played a role in raising the response times, Jones said the population increase has resulted in more calls for service. Officers handled 9,523 service calls in 1981. In 2013, they responded to 42,832.
With the addition of a Wal-Mart on Edgefield Road near Interstate 20 and the possibility of Project Jackson, a multiuse 44-acre riverfront project which would include a minor league baseball stadium, looming on the horizon, public safety could find itself with even more calls for service. The Wal-Mart is scheduled to be completed as early as fall of 2014.
“Because the lack of growth out there, we didn’t have as much crime as we did back toward the heart of the city,” Thornton said. “Now that you’re going to introduce a Wal-Mart and all of the other stores that go with that, there’s a concern that it’s not going to be as quiet as it has been in the past.”
Jones and Thornton said there is really only one solution to the problem: hire more officers.
The additional manpower could help bring the response time closer to the ideal of 5 minutes or less, Thornton said.
“If we had more officers, it would reduce the size of the city back to around what it was back in the ’80s,” he said. “We would have greater coverage with more officers out there with shorter distances to where the areas in which crime could occur.”
City officials want to add two officers each year for the next four years, should the annual budget allow for the increase. The additional eight officers may allow public safety to increase the amount of officers on patrol to nine or 10 per shift, excluding vacation and sick days, Jones said.
“We need more officers whether Project Jackson happens or not,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive and be ready, so if everything does work, we’re not dragging behind with public safety. As Barney Fife would say, ‘Nip it in the bud.’”
Jones said the city would have to dish out around $100,000 for each additional officer, which would cover salary, training, equipment and a patrol car.
According to the North Augusta Forward, the minimum amount of time to completely hire and train a new public safety officer is 12 to 13 months, including time spent at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy and South Carolina Fire Academy. Thornton said sometimes it could take as long as 16 months.
“One way we can expedite that time frame is if we’re fortunate enough to have an applicant that already has South Carolina police academy certification or he’s already a trained firefighter in the state,” he said.