Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Injuries on the Rise for Berkeley Police, Fire Fighters

July 13, 2012
By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group

The number of police and firefighters getting injured on the job in Berkeley has shot up in the past three years, a trend officials can't exactly explain or attach a price tag.

Not only have the number of injuries gone up, but they are much higher than state and national averages, according to a City Council report from the city's human resources department.

"Let's face it, our (training and safety) program has failed," said Mayor Tom Bates as the council discussed the findings on Tuesday evening. "This is unacceptable."

David Hodgkins, director of the human resources department, presented the council data showing that in just the first five months of 2012, 28 percent of Berkeley police employees, including cops, parking enforcement and jail employees, were hurt on the job.

If the trend continues for the rest of the year, that would be more than double the 20 percent rate of police employees who got hurt in 2011.

In 2010, the 16 percent of police who were injured on the job was higher than the California average of 10 percent and the national average of 11 percent. State and national figures for 2011 and the first part of 2012 are not available.

"In comparison to national and state numbers, I am concerned," Hodgkins said. "It was an eye opener for everyone. I don't want to see anyone get hurt."

The percent of firefighters getting hurt is alarming, too.

For the first five months of 2012, 22 percent were hurt on the job, up from 16 percent for all of 2011. A separate fire department report noted that injuries were up 28 percent and medical claims up 25 percent for a one-year period ending in March 2012, compared to the previous one-year period.

Hodgkins said that though the numbers of injuries has spiked, overall workers' compensation claims for the city are "flat" compared to previous years. And he pointed to a 12-year study that showed medical claims for all city employees fell from 400 in 1999 to about 60 in 2011.

Although officials do not know why police and firemen are getting hurt on the job more often, they do know how. For police, the largest ¿number of injuries -- 23 percent -- comes from training and exercise,¿¿ followed by injuries received when wrestling with people resisting arrest, which account for 20 percent.

For firefighters, the most injuries come from fighting fires and transporting sick patients -- 26 percent -- and from training and exercise, at 14 percent.

Berkeley Firefighters Association President Jim Geissinger pointed out that numbers were high last year because of two large fires and because fires are burning hotter and faster now that homes and businesses have more synthetic and plastic materials inside them, which makes them more dangerous.

"We run 12,500 calls per year and work a very uncontrolled environment," Geissinger told the council.

Police Chief Michael Meehan said "a fair amount" of injuries are coming from police officers twisting to look at onboard computers inside their patrol cars.

Tim Kaplan, president of the Berkeley Police Association, said many of the injuries come from officers struggling with people they are trying to arrest. If they had Tasers to subdue unruly suspects, which the police department has been requesting for about 10 years, the number of injuries could go down, he said.

"We think the Taser is a tool to help mitigate some injuries," Kaplan said. "It certainly would stop the need to try to wrestle with someone. We do very well with not using excessive force, we try to talk our way through things, but there are times when people are hellbent on fighting."

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408.

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