The long-awaited consultant's report was clear: Alexandria officials were "unanimously and overwhelmingly convinced" that the city's Public Safety Department, formed in the fall of 1983, was a mistake.

The department, a merger of the police, fire and code enforcement divisions ostensibly created to save money and provide more efficient service, was instead a blunder that caused divisive rivalry between firefighters and police officers, officials said in interviews last week.

The merger died with an announcement last Tuesday by City Manager Vola Lawson that police and fire services would be restored immediately to their former, separate status. Immediately, post-mortems began on the strange birth and short life of the department.

Although the 27-month merger saved a notable sum, $768,121, and "looked good on paper," in one official's words, the plan also was born of City Hall politics and tensions between an ambitious city manager and an outspoken fire chief, according to interviews with veteran city employes last week.

The $768,121 in cuts came at the expense of 13 management positions that could have been axed without the merger, City Council members said.

And the ensuing morale problems, likened by some to those that might occur if the Army and Navy were combined, exacted a toll on personnel, undoubtedly causing some to go to work elsewhere.

"There were a lot of little things that caused problems," said Richard E. LaRock, acting president of the Alexandria Firefighters Local 2141.

"We didn't know where to order equipment from or get supplies," LaRock said. "There was so much chaos. For instance, if you wanted to get a new shirt, by the time you filled out the form it would be obsolete."

The consultant, former Alexandria city manager Wayne Anderson, noted that controversy surrounding Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel also harmed the consolidation.

Strobel has acknowledged that he was distracted by a special grand jury's investigation into charges that he mishandled a 1984 cocaine investigation. Strobel was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Charles H. Rule, the vocal former fire chief who resigned after he was named as Strobel's deputy, said he believes the merger was pushed because of "the motivation of the people and the egos involved."

"It's the kind of thing that would look good on a resume," Rule said of the Public Safety Department. He alluded to the view, which he and some others hold, that former city manager Douglas Harman, the father of the merger, was eager to foster a cost-cutting, innovative accomplishment.

Harman, who is now city manager of Fort Worth, rejected that suggestion in a telephone interview Thursday, saying he "never viewed" the consolidation as an expedient political maneuver or a way to fire Rule.

Mayor James P. Moran Jr. would not comment on Rule's role in the merger. But he did say of the 1983 move: "It was another feather in the cap . . . . You could point to being a leader in the field . . . .[Harman] wanted to be at the forefront of innovative ideas."

Council member Patricia S. Ticer noted that the merger was done very quickly and said there may have been political reasons for such swift action.

The consolidation was carried out only three days after Strobel was notified of the plan and with "no time to plan for the implementation," according to a memo sent to Lawson.

"No one knows what was going on in [Harman's] mind," Ticer said.

"If [Harman] did think [Rule] was too divisive, it would have been an easy way to get rid of him, knowing he wouldn't take the number two position," the council member said.

Harman said the Public Safety Department, first proposed by council member Carlyle C. Ring, "crystalized" because of considerable displeasure with fragmented code enforcement units and because of a major concern about whittling down top-heavy managment.

"It's a whole lot easier for local governments not to take a risk," said Harman, "because sometimes things don't work out."

The cost of uniting and then splitting the 217-officer police force and the 98-member firefighter division -- the code enforcement unit will remain, at least until June, with the fire department -- seems to be more in personal scars than whopping sums of money.

It will require modest funds to move the fire department, now headed by former deputy public safety director James E. Hicks, to new headquarters at Second and Powhatan streets. The bill from the consultant is not in yet, Lawson said.

But the agonizing hours -- at least nine long sessions -- that city staff members and officials spent going over the pros and cons and justifications for the reversal left many weary.

Said Rule, now the fire chief in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.: "It was a classic shotgun approach that was done so quickly there was no time for public hearings, which would have allowed the firefighters to talk and prove this thing a farce."