CEDAR FALLS — Fire protection was one of the key issues raised at a city candidate forum Tuesday night at City Hall.
Candidates for mayor and City Council in the Nov. 7 election offered their views on the relative merits of the city’s current system of supplementing full-time firefighters with cross-trained public safety officers and paid-on-call city staff.
A question posed by a member of the audience — which included several City Council members not up for re-election this year — asserted the city has “the highest number of trained fire personnel in Cedar Falls history,” totaling the number of career firefighters, public safety officers and paid on-call staff.
Mayoral candidate Jim Skaine disagreed.
“It’s a false statement! It’s a lie!” Skaine proclaimed. “I’ve heard two very carefully documented presentations at the last two council meetings that demonstrate it’s a lie.”
He was referring to a presentation by retired Assistant Fire Chief Bill Bell that indicated the number of full-time firefighters has been reduced, and public safety officers are not the answer.
It’s an example of where the City Council has rendered city services “unsafe and unreliable,” Skaine said.
Incumbent Mayor Jim Brown, however, said the cross-trained public safety officers “typically have been first on the scene,” equipped to quickly extinguish or suppress fires until full-time firefighters arrive.
“Now at that scene instead of having six, or seven or eight firefighters, career, now we actually have at these fires 12 to 14 firefighters” Brown said. “These career folks will still be dictating, still be letting folks know, where to go and what to do in a situation.”
The City Council is “finding the balance between having the safety of our citizens high, high on their list and the cost effectiveness of that,” Brown said. “It’s a good idea, especially with the upcoming public safety building we’re also building south of town.”
Bell has said the city had 38 full-time firefighters 30 years ago and has 27 now, while the city has grown significantly. However, in a recent presentation to the City Council, Public Safety Director Jeff Olson noted adding public safety officers the city has a total firefighting force of 52.
Among the three at-large council candidates, LeaAnn Saul said 15 full-time firefighters would cost the city upwards of an additional $1.8 million a year. “I think the PSO model works,” she said. “There might be some middle ground here. There’s room for compromise, and we should explore it.”
Candidate Rob Green said, “I just can’t come across to believe that PSOs are a 1-1 replacement for a career firefighter.” He also questioned the rationale of equating public safety with cost savings since going to a volunteer fire department would save money as well.
At-large candidate Erin Cornelius favored hiring full-time firefighters to bring the city up to National Fire Protection Association standards. “I don’t believe that PSOs replace firefighters. Period. It’s patently untrue that we have more full-time firefighters than we did previously.”
Incumbent Third Ward council member John Runchey said PSOs and paid on-call staff are trained and certified to “the exact same level as the full-time firefighters.”
He added, “I understand the firefighters are unhappy with this type of arrangement. But it’s the truth. And it really saves the city a great deal of money.” Many calls PSOs handle “are a car fire or something that can be handled without having to bring the entire department. So it makes perfect sense, in my opinion. And it’s very cost effective.”
Runchey’s opponent, Daryl Kruse, said he’d like to find out what specific concerns anyone has about inadequate fire protection. “For example, if there was a deficient effort in fighting a fire, what could have been done better? I would dig into the details. On the surface, John is explaining really well what’s there. But people must feel there’s a shortage, and I’d like to know.”
The Black Hawk-Bremer League of Women Voters sponsored the forum.