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Flames consume a flood buyout house in Cedar Falls being used to train both firefighters and public safety officers.

I fear with the present situation with the Fire Department, Cedar Falls is teetering on the brink of going 10 rounds with a group that operates with unwavering obduracy — insurance underwriters. If they decide our current operational mode is untenable then insurance rates will skyrocket. I know there are people in town who think they can break the firefighters union. I have no love for the Teamsters, but that kind of thinking could be a costly mistake. Besides, our country owes its standard of living to the activities of unions fighting since the 1920s. People would not have living wages, sick leave, vacation pay, safety regulations and humane treatment without unions. Count me out as a union buster, but count me in as scared spitless if the underwriters descend on this town.

I confess to being partially responsible for our current situation. As a city councilman in 2005, I voted for training nonfirefighting personnel to assist the fire department. I did so with some mental reservations, but I thought the trainees could be helpful in a large emergency. Since then, succeeding councils have used the availability of trainees as standard operating procedure. That was furthest from my mind in 2005. As a consequence, I fear the underwriters will regard Cedar Falls as having a volunteer fire department with too few volunteers. My other point is our “volunteers” may not be readily available. Both police and public works personnel could be involved in situations involving life or death, major crime or property damage just when they are needed to help the firemen.

There is a solution. During my last four years on the council I actively proposed (many times) increasing the Fire Department to 42 people and the Police Department to 52. Why? My reasons have come to pass. We have a half-billion-dollar public and private investment in the southern industrial park and we are approaching 6,000 jobs. Hopefully, the northern industrial park will be as successful. Both need reliable protection. Our population has swelled to nearly 42,000 and housing has expanded explosively, especially to the south and west. Where we once had 206 street miles (my time), we now are near 300 street miles. You say, “We can’t afford to add employees.” I say, “We can’t afford not to.” Do you know that towns half the size of Cedar Falls can put more people on a conflagration than Cedar Falls?

“Oh, but our taxes will go up.” Wait until you get your insurance bill after the underwriters hit town. No doubt there are things labor and management can change without huge cash outlays. I know firefighters think the present shift arrangement was brought down from Sinai by Moses, but I regard it as an anachronism fraught with mind-numbing difficulty in juggling personnel to fill a shift for three days. Vacations, sick leave, bereavement leave and family emergencies always interfere with filling out a shift or setting up schedules for “call backs” in major emergency situations. It wouldn’t make any difference with any other shift structure. That’s why having a full complement of firefighters is superior to any other management structure.

There is something council members can do to meet stringent underwriter standards. Be advised that firefighters are fiercely proud of their profession. That pride has been largely ignored lately at management levels. You have organized a Public Safety Department with three chiefs, essentially two department chiefs and a “super chief.” What money was saved at the top management level? Having a chief over their chief indicates to the troops their work is regarded as inferior to other departments. The same could be said about the police if a fireman was elected “super chief.” Regardless, if you don’t please the underwriters you have set yourself up for major lawsuits in case some angry property owners regard the present situation as contributing to major loss. Big, big lawsuits. Get to work, because next year’s budget adjustments are due.

I have just received a flyer showing higher sick leaves for fire employees. My experience as a manager indicates a severe morale problem.

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Stanley Smith is a former Cedar Falls City Council member.

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