When Woodbury police officer Jeff St. Martin arrives at a fire, he slips out of his shoes and bulletproof vest and pulls on his firefighting pants and boots while standing outside his squad car.

"It's an odd feeling taking my gun off in the middle of a public location," St. Martin said. "I'm kind of doing my chicken dance out there."

What started as an experiment in Woodbury to improve response times at big fires has grown into a full-scale effort to break with tradition. Washington County's largest city is Minnesota's only public-safety department where on-duty police officers double as firefighters, changing into fire clothes stowed in the trunks of their squad cars.

"Honestly, when I first heard about this plan I thought it was kind of crazy," said Lee Vague, Woodbury's public safety director. "I thought, 'What's next, plow drivers?'"

But Woodbury officials -- unconcerned that Burnsville abandoned a similar program years ago -- think the plan makes good economic sense in a city that had only about 60 serious fire calls last year. Police calls, meanwhile, topped 26,000 in the city of about 60,000 residents.

Woodbury has nine full-time firefighters and three full-time fire chiefs, but supplements that crew with 68 on-call firefighters -- and now with 10 police officers who qualify as firefighters. Those cops play prominently in a new city policy that requires five trained firefighters to respond to fires in fewer than 9 minutes, 90 percent of the time.

The city hasn't compiled a 2007 average response time, which Vague and Mayor Bill Hargis acknowledge is a critical benchmark to evaluate how the innovation is working. Through 2006, Vague said, that first-response goal was met 53 percent of the time. But as more police officers become firefighters -- five more will be hired with that in mind this year -- he expects improvement.

"We're asking a lot of our cops and we know that," Vague said. "The city knows very well, they're getting a lot of bang for the buck here, there's no doubt about it."

But Vague said the arrangement is a matter of efficiency, too. Because most Woodbury firefighters work on call, some drive straight to a fire while others swing by one of the city's firehouses to grab a truck. Police officers already cruising in their squad cars often arrive first at a fire, Vague said, and could go to work dousing it instead of watching from the street.

Officer Omar Macklad did just that recently when he arrived at a business where smoke was ballooning from air vents. After changing into his fire clothes, he and another firefighter found diesel machinery ablaze in a warehouse. Macklad was at the front of the hose, spraying water on the fire. Two other Woodbury police officers-turned-firefighters helped, while the sergeant on duty summoned police officers scheduled to work the night shift to replace the officers responding to the fire.

Two jobs, more danger

St. Martin, a member of the police union, said that despite the city's additional pay of $1.25 an hour for anyone who has dual training -- new police officers make $21 an hour -- the union worries about officers being required to know two jobs.

"The danger aspect," he said. "I've just added about 100 ways to hurt myself in my job."

Records show that police officers and firefighters tend to get hurt more than other types of city employees, said Ann Gergen, associate administrator of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Most of those injuries are sprains and strains from heavy lifting and repetitive motions, she said.

Police officers who work as firefighters shouldn't necessarily incur more liability, Gergen said. "It's not that you're multiplying the risk because they're not doing two dangerous jobs at once, they're doing one or the other," she said.

Of all metro cities, New Brighton appears to have the closest arrangement to what Woodbury is doing. Seven police officers work as New Brighton firefighters, but only when they're off duty.

"The police officer who's also trained as a firefighter has the ability to size up the situation," said Bob Jacobson, the city's public safety director. "They can do a lot more on the fire scene."

Burnsville tried the combined police and firefighting approach in the 1960s and 1970s but abandoned it in favor of a full-time fire department in 1981. Police Chief Bob Hawkins said that as the years went by and Burnsville had more crime and more fires, the city returned to a full-time fire department.

Woodbury isn't a big fire town, said Greg Schlichting, fire division commander. Of 600-some calls a year, about 10 percent are fires of significance, he said, and commercial fires are rare because most buildings are newer with modern detection systems. That leaves a small number of fires that would involve police officers, he said.

Woodbury already has 22 police officers trained as paramedics under a program started in 1995. They earn an additional 7 percent of their base salary for doing so, he said. Now, any new officer is expected to train as a firefighter or as a paramedic.

St. Martin, who volunteered 16 months ago to become one of Woodbury's first five cops to train as firefighters, offered his evaluation: "Overall, in a word, positive. I'm excited about its potential and where it's going."

And Macklad said that he draws stares when he's changing clothes at a fire until people realize what's happening.

"Everybody's just standing there thinking it's a joke," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554