by BETH ALTENA
“It was a challenge, especially being older. If I was in my twenties like everyone else in the class, it would have been easier,” Bob Berkstresser, 51, made the statement about a grueling 16-week, 594-hour police training academy.
Berkstresser just completed the class, allowing him to join the ranks of Rockford’s relatively new Department of Public Safety as a fully trained firefighter and police officer.
City Manager Michael Young described the achievement by saying, “This is one of the significant milestones we have accomplished as we move to the ultimate phase-in of the consolidation at the end of the year.”
Young was talking about the consolidation of police and fire first responder with Department of Public Works employees also cross-trained as first responders. At a rollover accident in Rockford on August 22, there were 15 first responders on the scene helping to extricate a driver pinned in a rollover vehicle. The training of City of Rockford employees to take advantage of existing staff in a variety of emergency situations is the goal Young, Police Chief Dave Jones and Fire Chief Mike Reus had in mind when they planned the merger.
“The majority of our calls take place between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. so it only makes sense that the Department of Public Works people trained to respond to fire, police and medical,” said Berkstresser.
Berkstresser said it will be a challenge for the multi-trained staff to keep up on all ongoing training that is required, since fire, medical and police all have different ongoing training requirements. For example, this week Berkstresser has to attend a two-day conference required to maintain his certification as a fire inspector.
Berkstressor said the police academy, offered by Grand Valley State University over a 16-week period, wasn’t easy.
A firefighter for Rockford since 1992, Berkstresser found himself learning a whole new set of skills. Prior to joining Rockford as firefighter he was an employee of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. Berkstresser included among his recent training, law, defense tactics, firearms training, physical fitness and training, court procedures, report writing, field sobriety testing, Operating While Under the Influence testing, emergency vehicle operations, high risk felony stops, domestic violence training, role playing scenarios for a variety of situations such as drug deals and domestic violence.
The long days required Berkstresser to leave Rockford at about 5 a.m. and not return home until eight or nine at night, and weeks were often six days long. He said the program is a quasi-military environment with a very rigid rank structure. During his training he had to also maintain his duties as an Air Force Reservist, which are full-day weekend duties.
“Not every single week was a six-day week, but it seems like every time it was just five days it was the week I had reservist duties,” he stated.
One month before Berkstresser began his police academy training, his daughter Holly, a 2004 Rockford High School graduate and a 2011 graduate of Northern Michigan University, entered the Wisconsin Conservation Officer Training Academy at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin. Holly had studied Environmental Conservation and Native American Studies at Northern and her law enforcement training allowed her to accept this summer a job as Conservation Officer for the Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan under the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Administration.
“She did say she was proud of me,” Berkstresser stated. “I am so proud of her too.”
Berkstresser said Holly’s job is to enforce the Treaty of 1847, which regulates hunting and fishing laws. Berkstresser said Holly’s job is one with great responsibility, and because of the vast territory under her watch and the relatively few fellow wardens, she is given as much gear as possible to be effective in law enforcement.
Berkstresser said his daughter is assigned a boat, snowmobile, SUV and truck. She carries with her a 40-caliber Glock pistol, a Remington 870 shotgun and an M4 patrol rifle capable of fully automatic firing.
“Because of her coverage area, back-up could be pretty far away,” he described.
Berkstresser is now in training how Rockford’s law enforcement works. He is equal parts firefighter and police officer under the Department of Public Safety.
“I am both, just like everybody else. I can go from one hat to another in a moment’s notice.”
Rockford’s Department of Public Safety Chief Dave Jones had this to say about Berkstresser’s achievement: “I am very proud of Robert’s accomplishment. The police academy is 594 hours of intense physical and mental instruction. To successfully complete the studies and physical rigors of the academy at this stage of Robert’s life and career is truly remarkable.”