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Questions remain over Cedar Falls safety staffing

CEDAR FALLS — More than two dozen Cedar Falls public safety personnel practiced dousing fires on two vacant flood-buyout houses on Roosevelt Street in the Cedar City area Wednesday.

The crew included both full-time firefighters and police trained as public safety officers. It was the largest training exercise yet in which public safety officers and firefighters worked together.

“It’s really been great,” Fire Chief John Bostwick said. “We have career firefighters teaching a lot. And the public safety officers who have some experience are teaching the new ones. They are absorbing a heck of a lot.”

Such training and firefighting will become more prevalent in the future.

All Cedar Falls police officers hired after July 1, 2016, are required to be cross-trained in firefighting skills. Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said officers typically are cross-trained within three years of hire and usually sooner.

But that does not mean the city eventually will have a full force of cross-trained public safety officers with no career firefighters or police officers.

Public safety officers will be hired “until we get a balance between full-time firemen and public safety officers. So we will always have full-time firemen,” said council member Dave Wieland. “It’s just we won’t have as many because we can get more efficient operation by getting a balance of the two.”

Cedar Falls Firefighters Association President Jim Cook, representing unionized full-time firefighters, would like to know what that balance is.

He said Wednesday’s training exercise was good. But, “We’ve been asking for a strategic plan for our department, and we have yet to be presented with a plan. That’s the frustrating part.”

Since July 1, 2016, the city has hired no full-time firefighters. Three firefighters left the force in recent years, Olson said. Those positions were not filled, while public safety officers continue to be hired. Olson noted the firefighting force tends to have less turnover than the police division.

Meanwhile, the city has been able to bring more personnel to fire scenes than ever before — a combination of full-time firefighters, public safety officers and other paid-on-call city staff.

Currently, the city has 27 career firefighters. Soon, 21 of its 43 police officers will be fully trained as public safety officers — a total of 48 people to fight fires, which Olson says is more than the city has had in many years.

In recent major fires, he said, the city has been able to bring 10 to 15 firefighting personnel to a scene. Public safety officers complement firefighters, often arriving early and suppressing fires until the full-time fire crew arrives.

“The council is not trying to erase either (police and fire) department, but expand cross-training opportunities across the board,” said council member Tom Blanford. Wieland noted firefighters can cross-train as police officers.

Added council member Susan deBuhr, “You’re going to need a quantity of full-time firefighters” as command staff and other purposes.

Mayor Jim Brown said the public safety model provides improved coverage, saves money and “offers great opportunities for advancement.”

He thinks bringing fire and police under one roof in the new public safety building will foster greater cooperation.

The mayor and some council members said the city can change direction when an optimum number of public safety officers has been hired or if a large number of full-time firefighters leave and need to be replaced.

Olson said optimum staffing of PSOs should be achieved in about a year. The city has the flexibility to hire a firefighter or a police officer. The job description leaves the timing of an officer’s cross-training to his discretion.

But, Cook said, “We’ve not seen any plan that says, ‘This is where we want to go and this is how we’re going to get there.’”

Council member Mark Miller says he understands firefighters’ “angst” and wishes staffing levels were better defined.

“That said, I like the options the public safety program provides,” he said. He hopes it will provide better coverage in northern Cedar Falls, where he lives.

Miller believes full-time firefighters always will be needed, though maybe not at the same levels as years ago.

Olson said the public safety officer program will work if firefighters and PSOs work together as they did in Wednesday’s training exercise.

“It’s better than a year ago, and a year from now it will be even better,” he said.

Lawyer for Hampton man says gun maker long knew about explosion-prone rifle

CEDAR RAPIDS (AP) — Newly disclosed records show a major gun manufacturer knew for years about extensive problems with the barrel of a rifle that has injured several hunters in explosions, a plaintiff’s lawyer alleged Wednesday.

Savage Arms has produced a list of nearly 300 customers who returned their stainless steel 10 ML-II muzzleloaders due to bulging or split barrels dating to 2003, attorney Steve Crowley said. The company has also faced 45 legal claims from customers over similar issues, he said, including several who suffered injuries to their hands, faces and hearing when the barrel exploded upon firing.

Crowley represents Ronald Hansen of Hampton, who says he suffered permanent damage to his right hand and ear and facial burns when his rifle exploded in December 2014. Crowley and attorneys for Savage Arms appeared in federal court Wednesday in Cedar Rapids for a motions hearing in Hansen’s lawsuit, which alleges the company knowingly marketed a product with a steel barrel prone to catastrophic failure after repeated firings.

Westfield, Mass.-based Savage Arms has insisted the 10 ML-II, which was discontinued in 2010 after about 41,000 were produced, is not defective and is safe when used properly. It has blamed the explosions on operator error, saying users likely loaded two bullets by mistake or the wrong type or amount of gunpowder.

Savage Arms lawyer Danny Lallis on Wednesday questioned whether Hansen’s hearing damage was caused by the explosion, citing a company-hired expert who suggests it came from exposure to other noises. He asked U.S. Magistrate C.J. Williams to order Hansen, who began wearing a hearing aid after the explosion and testified he still struggles to communicate, to submit to an independent medical examination with the expert.

Crowley argued the examination was unnecessary given Hansen’s treating doctors diagnosed him with a blown eardrum after the explosion, and the company’s expert has already reached his conclusion.

Williams said he would soon rule on the company’s request and on Crowley’s motion for an order to compel Savage Arms to release additional information about the muzzleloader’s barrel problems.

Crowley said that Savage Arms only recently disclosed thousands of records related to the rifle’s development, which he had sought on multiple occasions since February. He accused Savage Arms and its lawyers of evading and delaying his information requests in “a game of keep away” intended to undermine his client’s case.

“We have finally gotten a look inside the curtain and we know now this problem is much deeper than the company has ever acknowledged,” Crowley said.

Crowley said the documents reveal that Savage Arms created a special muzzleloader return team to evaluate the problems, but the company hasn’t released the group’s communications or findings. Other documents show that a high-ranking company executive reported that he loaded two projectiles into his muzzleloader at once but that it didn’t explode, he said.

Crowley said he needs “straight answers” from the company as he seeks to build a case that Savage Arms acted recklessly and should be ordered to pay punitive damages at trial next year.

Lallis said the company has been releasing information in response to Crowley’s requests and as it discovers additional relevant documents. He said the company has made a “diligent and good-faith effort” to comply with its discovery obligations while making appropriate objections to requests that were too broad or confusing.

NEW DETAILS: Cops detail evidence against man in hunter homicide

Ethan Landon Davis

CEDAR FALLS — One person has been arrested in connection with the death of a Cedar Falls hunter whose body was found near Rathbun Lake.

Authorities have filed first-degree murder charges against Ethan Landon Davis, 27, of Promise City, in the death of 31-year-old Curtis Ross, according to court records.

Davis appeared Wednesday in Appanoose County District Court, where a judge set his bail at $1 million. Davis did not enter a plea. A message left with his court-appointed public defender, Kenneth Duker, was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Ross had traveled to Appanoose County on Nov. 23 to retrieve hunting equipment he had previously set out, and he was reported missing Nov. 25 after he failed to return to a home where he had been staying.

His truck was discovered near the entrance to the Rathbun Lake hunting area, and his body was found later that day. An autopsy determined he had been shot and stabbed numerous times.

Investigators found ammunition and magazines in the area where the body was found, as well as spent shell casings from a rifle and a large amount of blood.

Fingerprints on some of the items pointed to Davis, according to court records, and authorities searched his Promise City mobile home, which sat on more than 400 acres of property belonging to his parents.

Authorities also found Davis’ vehicle hidden, and tests found traces of blood, records state. They found a rifle hidden under farm equipment on a remote area of the property, and the weapon had blood and Davis’ fingerprints, records state. Ballistics tests showed casings from the scene matched the rifle, records state.

Court records indicate Ross was killed Nov. 24, possibly sometime between noon and midnight.

Davis was arrested for an unrelated burglary, willful injury and child endangerment charges Nov. 25 in connection with a separate attack and has been in jail since.

Authorities said on the same day Ross was killed — Nov. 24 — Davis broke into a Seymour home around 11:45 a.m. and beat Jarvis Kennebeck on the side of the face with a 9 mm pistol. He then fired the handgun while holding his own 20-month-old son, records state.

An attorney for Davis’ parents said in court records Davis was trying to remove the child from the mother’s care because she used drugs. Davis’ parents are petitioning the court for guardianship of the child.

Curtis Ross