Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Develops Staff of Triple-Trained Public Safety Officers

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Develops Staff of Triple-Trained Public Safety Officers
Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional (ROA) has implemented a new emergency services program to keep customers safer than ever despite increasing passenger volume.  

Until recently, the western Virginia airport contracted an outside company for on-call fire protection and employed seven conservators of the peace to work standard rotating shifts. In September 2016, ROA’s department was officially designated a police department by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, and all officers were sworn in as police officers. Now, an in-house team of 14 public safety officers provides police, fire and emergency medical services 24/7, and one police officer remains on staff. 

An impending 2018 deadline for the previous fire services contract prompted ROA Executive Director Tim Bradshaw to consider the structure change. After years of planning, purchasing equipment and hiring/training personnel, the airport opened its new emergency services department in July 2018, and triple-trained safety officers completed their first shifts. In early December, ROA was on pace to serve more than 650,000 passengers in 2018 and close the books on its busiest year in more than a decade.


Project: In-House Public Safety Dept.

Location: Roanoke-Blacksburg (VA) Regional Airport 

Strategy: Cross train personnel for police,
fire & emergency medical service duties

Cost Savings: $350,000/yr

Debut of New Dept: July 1, 2018 

Development Timeline: July 2015–June 2018 

Staff: 14 cross-trained public safety officers; 1 police officer (held over from previous structure)

Schedule: Officers work 24 hours on, 48 hours off; each 24-hour shift includes 8 hours of police work
& 16 hours at firehouse

A New Model 

When Bradshaw became ROA’s executive director in 2014, he arrived with knowledge about all-in-one public safety departments from previous positions at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids and Louisville International. “I was able to see a brand-new department start up in Kentucky and learn from a well-entrenched department in Iowa,” he explains. “I saw the benefit of having highly trained, highly qualified people to perform those tasks, because they can react to anything.” 

He began with a feasibility study to determine whether establishing such a department at ROA was even possible. A financial analysis showed switching would have a major positive impact, even with initial expenses for training and equipment.  

“When it was all said and done, this change saved the airport about $350,000 a year,” Bradshaw reports. “For a small airport, that’s a big number. I think it’s given us the opportunity to use our resources wisely—not only with staffing, but with our physical assets as well.” 

With three years before ROA’s fire services contract would expire, the new executive director got to work. First, he needed someone to take the lead on the project; and he didn’t need to look far or long. Benjamin Cook, a recently retired police chief from a nearby community, was ready for a new challenge. “He was hired just to do this, and really did the lion’s share of work needed to stand this department up on its own,” he says of the airport’s new chief and director of Public Safety. 

Cook was happy to tackle the task of establishing a new emergency services department for the airport. In addition to 39 years of fire service, he also had additional experience in law enforcement and emergency medical response. “The job description fit everything I’d done my entire career,” he remarks. 

It was also a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a public safety department from scratch—and not just one, but three-in-one. “It works really well in a location like ours, especially in the airport setting where maybe an officer wears more than one hat anyway,” Cook comments. “It was really good to be able to create the department and everything for it: the patches, uniforms, badges, equipment, all that stuff.” 

To manage the aggressive two-year implementation schedule, Cook subdivided the tasks and deadlines into six-month increments. Developing job descriptions and hiring candidates proficient in all three disciplines required extra attention. For instance, someone with a theft conviction may work as a firefighter, but not as a police officer. Strict vetting procedures were established to ensure that the right people were hired, he notes.

“Hiring is probably one of the most difficult things to do,” Bradshaw adds. “One didn’t make it through the academy…another was in and decided it wasn’t for him. It’s hard to get the right candidates for this job.”

In particular, Cook looked for professionals who were well qualified to manage a wide variety of situations. “We needed people who can protect others from things that are unpleasant, communicate effectively and be able to react to a really dangerous situation with the appropriate level of response,” he explains. “They also must not be afraid to go into a situation with an active airplane crash and multiple victims.” 

Transitions & New Hires 

Like Cook, other retired police officers were also interested in new opportunities at ROA. Candidates without specific police experience had to successfully complete an extensive 18-week police academy. 

The airport gave existing staff members the option to continue working as conservators of the peace or transition to new roles as police officers only with new responsibilities and work schedules. Most were near retirement, and Bradshaw wanted to acknowledge their service while also transitioning to a new multi-coverage department. 

Six staff members completed training for additional disciplines; one continues to work as a police officer. As ROA executives searched for others to fill the ranks, they found that some applicants had fire experience, some had police and some neither. 

Bradshaw reports that department personnel (12 male, three female) earn very good salaries. “We want to pay them well,” he says. “They are highly trained and can respond to any emergency we have.” 

Officers work a rotating schedule of 24 hours on/48 hours off. Each 24-hour shift includes eight hours of police work and 16 hours at the firehouse. Daylight police officers work at the terminal from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., and then work as firefighters until 7:00 the next morning while colleagues from the fire station cover the terminal. 

The overlapping duty structure provides built-in flexibility. For instance, one day while police officers were already engaged at the terminal, fire station personnel investigated a suspicious vehicle at another building. Two of the four team members on duty at the fire station slipped on guns and vests right over their fire uniforms and station gear to answer the police call, and the airport maintained required staffing at the firehouse. “We have our own back up,” explains Cook.  

Triple Trained

ROA paid for all the officers’ police academy, aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) and emergency medical training. A designated captain/training officer tracks compliance, certifications, etc. in all three disciplines for each team member. 

Regulatory requirements span a variety of areas, from firearms proficiency to airfield response time. Meeting medical standards is particularly challenging, notes Bradshaw. “That’s not something you can do every so often,” he advises. “They go through an EMR (emergency medical responder) certification, which includes a very difficult written test, and then have a practical test on top of that. It’s essential to have someone paying attention to those details.” 

Some FAA-required fire training is presented by instructors within the department who were previously certified at the ARFF-certified Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, KY. The team also utilizes programs by the Virginia Department of Fire for two onsite live-burns per year. The state provides instructors and access to a training simulator free of charge; ROA only pays for the propane used during the week-long training scenarios.

Given the overall cost of training, officers are required to sign promissory notes stating that they will repay some of the expenses incurred by the airport if they leave prematurely. 

Bradshaw and Cook are confident that the airport has the right people trained and in place. Both are also learning to embrace the department’s expanded scope of authority. Cook cites its first theft case as an example: He had to remind the applicable officer to proceed with interviewing the suspect himself vs. turning the matter over to city police. The officer completed the investigation, recovered the stolen property and cleared the case.

“I think for a long time the fences around the airport defined their boundaries,” Cook explains. “Sometimes we have to go beyond the fence to solve a crime.” 

The boundaries officially changed when ROA added state-certified police officers to its ranks in July. Cook’s existing relationships with police, fire and emergency medical agencies throughout the greater Roanoke area proved to be a huge plus for establishing and running the airport’s new department. As ROA’s chief and public safety director, Cook continues to prioritize professional networking. “You really have to establish and maintain those relationships with people you will call to back you up,” he notes. 

Because most of the airport property is within the city of Roanoke, its agencies are immediate second responders. “God forbid we had a fire and were really restricted on our water supply,” Cook muses. “They would be an integral part of providing more water.”

At the new department’s six-month mark, Bradshaw was pleased with the proficiency and confidence of Cook and his team. “When we did our disaster drill, I saw them really step up and learn it,” he says. “We went through our FAA inspection, and they did a great job.”

Bradshaw also sees the ROA team validating the very concept of staffing a public safety department with cross-trained staff. “I think that other departments around the community were kind of skeptical when we started doing this, but I think they see the benefit now,” he says. “It was fear of the unknown, and many didn’t know what to expect on the other side, especially since many were past police officers. We’ve worked together, and we took this trip together.” 

“It’s a great model for us,” adds Bradshaw. “We have people here 24 hours a day who are watching over things, who can respond to any type of emergency we have.” 

High-Tech Lost & Found 

Returning items lost by customers is a low priority compared to safety-critical tasks such as screening baggage and passengers, or clearing runways of ice and snow. But it’s an urgent matter for the senior citizen who forgot his glasses at the ticketing counter or the business traveler who left her laptop charging in a holdroom. 

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (ROA) streamlines the process of reuniting customers and their errant belongings with Crowdfind, a lost and found software/service company. Airport staff use a mobile app to snap pictures of lost items, and then post photos with short descriptions and found dates on the ROA website. 

Airport visitors can track down their belongings by checking the online lost and found inventory list, which is organized into general categories such as mobile devices, keys and clothing. They can then file a claim online or call the airport to initiate a return. The airport asks for distinguishing details (passcodes for phones, sizes and brands for clothing, etc.) to help fraudulent claims. 

According to Crowdfind, logging a lost item into the system can take just five to 10 seconds. When an airport visitor claims a recovered item, the company’s software creates an automated workflow to facilitate its return. Airport staff enter the property owner’s address and select a shipping option; the software automatically prints a shipping label, processes payment and sends a tracking code to the package recipient. Invoicing for shipping is sent directly to the property owner. 

“This makes everything so much easier,” reports ROA Executive Director Tim Bradshaw.  

The annual subscription for ROA’s new lost and found app and service is less than $2,000. Crowdfind President Dan Sullivan notes that the system eases anxiety for airports and travelers alike, and reduces the amount of time it takes to reunite owners with their lost belongings. 

ROA was the company’s first airport client, and Salt Lake City International now uses the service as well. Crowfind officials report that several other U.S. airports may follow suit.   

“If my son loses his truck, that can be a bad day,” jokes Sullivan. “That’s part of what we’re trying to do—make the travel experience better for people.” 


Emergency Operations

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