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.