It may be time for the city of Cedar Falls to have an open discussion with its citizens on optimum public safety staffing.
The city has been hiring a number of police officers to be cross-trained as public safety officers. That is not new. The use of public safety officers in lieu of full-time career firefighters has been an issue for at least the past two city elections.
What may be news to many citizens is newly hired police officers are required to be cross-trained as public safety officers.
That was the result of an April 6, 2015, City Council action amending the job description for police positions.
Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said an officer typically will be cross-trained within three years of hire and usually sooner.
Since July 1, 2016, the city has hired no full-time firefighters. Three firefighters have left the force in recent years. Those positions were not filled while public safety officers continue to be hired.
If the city were to continue down that path — hiring public safety officers and not firefighters — it would one day have a force made up entirely of public safety officers.
Several city officials say that is not their intent — although, from their reactions, some may not have been aware of the cross-training requirement.
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, after checking with Olson. “It’s just we won’t have as many because we can get more efficient operation by getting a balance of the two.” He noted firefighters have the option of being cross-trained as police officers.
Said council member Tom Blanford: “The council is not trying to erase either (police and fire) department, but expand cross-training opportunities across the board.” Blanford was not in office at the time the cross-training requirement was adopted.
Currently, Olson said the city has 27 career firefighters and will soon have 21 of 43 police officers fully trained as public safety officers — a total of 48 people to fight fires, which he says is more than it has had in many years.
In recent major fires, the city has sent 10 to 15 personnel to a fire scene. Public safety officers often arrive early and suppress fires until the full-time fire crew arrives. The more firefighters, PSOs and police can train and work together, the better.
“Our intention is to be a blend of full-time firefighter and public safety officers,” said council member Susan deBuhr. “You’re going to need a quantity of full-time firefighters” for command staff positions and other purposes.
Mayor Jim Brown said the public safety model offers improved coverage, saves 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.
Brown and some council members also say the city can change direction if it is determined 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 the city may reach optimum staffing of PSOs in about a year, without naming a specific number. He said the city has the flexibility to hire a firefighter or a police officer.
So, city officials say Cedar Falls will continue to have full-time firefighters and there may be a plateau for hiring public safety officers. But that level is, as yet, apparently undefined.
Cedar Falls Firefighters Association President Jim Cook, representing unionized full-time career firefighters, would like to know what that balance is. “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.”
Two new council members take office in January and budget deliberations follow soon after. That may be a good time for the mayor, council and city staff to huddle up and bring the public safety staffing situation into clearer focus for themselves and the citizens they are protecting.