CEDAR FALLS — For about three years the city of Cedar Falls has begun using dual-trained public safety officers — PSOs — to help fight fires.
There has been push back. Now two veteran firefighters have quit the force.
James Cook worked as a full-time firefighter in Cedar Falls for 12 years, but left this month due to safety concerns. He’ll take a $20,000 pay cut to work as a firefighter in the Des Moines metro area.
Firefighter Shane Farmer also resigned and reportedly plans to move out of state.
Cook had worked in emergency services since 1986 and for 10 years was president of Cedar Falls Firefighters Association, the union representing firefighters.
Sept. 1 was his last day.
Cook said he left because he no longer feels the Cedar Falls Fire Department provides the safe service people of Cedar Falls deserve.
“The safety I’m referencing is my personal safety by not having enough personnel that we’re able to meet national standards for fire response, and the personal risk above and beyond the risk I normally take as a firefighter,” Cook said.
Jeff Olson, Cedar Falls public safety director and chief of police, says change can be difficult. He said safety concerns are unwarranted.
“We’re going through change, and anytime we do that, be it a private or public entity, some people don’t like that,” Olson said. “What we’re doing is adding more firefighters than we’ve ever had on shift.”
There are 20 PSOs in Cedar Falls with more on the way. Eventually there will be more than 60 PSOs and firefighters available to respond to a scene.
“We’ll have five or six working the fire shift and five or six working the PD (police department) shift,” Olson said. “As an example, last week we had 19 firefighters working at the time a serious call came out. We see more people available than we’ve ever had before.”
Cook disagrees. He said what matters is how much manpower can get to the scene in the early stages of a fire to prevent it from spreading.
“I’m comfortable taking a certain amount of risk putting out these fires,” Cook said. “There comes a point where my family isn’t comfortable with the level of risk I am taking when the city doesn’t feel the need to listen to what it is we’re saying.”
Cook and others feel Cedar Falls is leaning too much on surrounding fire departments for support.
“Any city can’t necessarily take care of everything at any time,” Cook said. “Our city should be able to handle more than what we’re capable of at this point in time.”
At a recent fire at Nordic Ridge Drive, no neighboring fire departments were used, said Cedar Falls Fire Chief John Bostwick.
“We have had the Hudson Fire Department bring us a tanker truck periodically to assist with water supply at places that we don’t have water from a fire hydrant,” Bostwick said. “(It) is no different than the Hudson Fire Department asking us to bring a tanker truck to assist them with a place that they didn’t have water.”
The Cedar Falls Fire Department has one tanker truck, and only calls on neighboring communities when outside city limits, Olson said.
“That has not changed in 30 years. We only use them for a tanker,” Olson said. “We could buy two or three more tankers, but we only need them maybe once a year.”
Fires in Cedar Falls are down significantly, Olson said. “For us that traditional model is not an efficient model anymore.”
More than 130 fire departments in the United States use PSOs, Olson said.
“If it wasn’t a good program we wouldn’t be doing it,” Olson said. “And it is working for us. You meet resistance when you have change.”
But it isn’t about an inability to work with a changing system for Cook, he said. It has everything to do with the city not looking out for the safety of its citizens and employees, be they firefighters or public safety officers.
“I don’t want to be there when something bad happens and something could’ve done to prevent it,” Cook said. “I don’t want that on my shoulders.”