CEDAR FALLS — The city is stepping up its game in hiring, equipping and training public safety officers.

A total of 16 public safety officers recently began cross-training in fire services, Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said.

When they complete that training —which takes almost a year — the city will have a firefighting force of 36 public safety officers and 26 full-time career firefighters.

That’s the most ever, Olson said. In 1979, the city had a peak of 40 full-time firefighters. At that time the fire department also staffed dispatching and handled ambulance calls. Sartori Memorial Hospital paramedics took over that service in the early 1980s.

The 16-member training class is the largest so far. It includes newly sworn in public safety officers — four were sworn in at a City Council meeting this week — as well as longtime police staff who wanted to be cross-trained. Those officers also add to police staffing.

Cedar Falls officials picked up some ideas during a trip last month to Kalamazoo, Mich. The city of 74,000 has had a fully cross-trained public safety department since the mid-1980s, with some officers dedicated primarily to police or fire. The city is home to Western Michigan University.

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Based on that visit, Olson said Cedar Falls may consider, in the short term, providing all cross-trained public safety officers with fire equipment in their patrol cars, including self-contained breathing apparatus for entering smoke-filled structures.

Another idea is using a specially equipped SUV for a public safety officer to provide fire or emergency medical services on quick notice — faster than rolling full fire truck out of a fixed station, Olson said.

“We’ll definitely look at both of those this year, by the first half of the year,” Olson said. The city already has compressed air foam units for fire suppression in the back of some police SUVs.

“All the stuff we got from there (Kalamazoo) helped us. We’re headed the right way, but it gave us a lot of tips,” Olson said.

Jim Cook, president of the Cedar Falls Firefighters Association representing unionized firefighters, said he was impressed by the Kalamazoo operation but noted the community is nearly twice the size of Cedar Falls with four times the budget and a large training facility.

Cook said more emphasis needs to be placed on training, and firefighters would like to see more training elements in a public safety building. He said firefighters believe a corps of dedicated career firefighters, supplemented by cross-trained public safety officers, is the best option.

Along those lines, council member Rob Green voted earlier this week against eliminating a vacant city fire services position.

“I can’t support eliminating this position, as I’ve not been convinced that a PSO is a one-for-one replacement for a career firefighter,” said Green, who ran on that issue when elected to the council in November.

The public safety model will be helped by construction over the coming year of a new public safety building, Olson said. Fire, police and public safety officers will be under the same roof at South Main Street and Bluebell Road, the site of the existing south fire station.

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“We’ll be working together more,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said about bumping into somebody in the hallway and just having a conversation,” he said.

In a separate matter, the City Council this week approved the purchase of a new fire truck from Toyne Manufacturing of Breda for $524,000. Delivery is anticipated in about year. The city currently has three fire trucks and the oldest model, built in 1989, will be kept in reserve. General obligation bonds will pay for the bulk of the cost.