UNDER FIRE: Local public safety department criticized

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (KWWL) – This isn’t a story with a clear ending. In fact the city seems to be struggling to calm people’s fears that 5 firefighters resigning in a matter of weeks is a sign that something’s not right.

A sea of red at city council this week, as many turned out in opposition of the city’s Public Safety Officer program, which has been in its latest form since 2005, cross training police as firefighters.

“You don’t have this type of showing when you’re doing a good job,” said Mark Woolbright, the Vice President of District 2 for the International Association of Firefighters.

“I plead with you to stay the course, regardless of the pressures,” said Chris Harshbarger, a Cedar Falls man.

While many opposed the program, others like Harshbarger offered support.

“I watched the firefighters at my home, PSOs and professional firefighters alike I couldn’t tell the difference,” said Harshbarger.

Others in attendance, like retired firefighter Sharon Regenold, asked the city to hold a public forum. Mayor Jim Brown denied the request.

“I will not have a meeting where my staff is barraged by people who are trying to separate the community,” said Brown, reading from a letter he sent to Regenold. She responded at Monday’s meeting.

“This leads us to believe that you are not open to hearing from both sides. If you’ve already decided how this will end, you are not listening to your citizens.”

“My husband and I watched as our neighbor’s house burned to the ground,” said Linda Hall, who was one of many who talked about fires they had experienced in Cedar Falls.

Hall was specifically talking about a fire that happened 2 miles outside city limits which has been scrutinized for a moment in which former fire Captain Josh Lux asks Public Safety Director Jeff Olson if they had any more PSOs.

Olson says they called for aide for the 9 personnel already on scene of that fire. He says more PSOs responded than full time firefighters. Olson also said efforts to put out the fire were hampered by a lack of water in the rural area at the time.

City documents show that Lux was forced to resign in September. The city says he falsified reports regarding an incident at UNI. KWWL requested documents for that incident but the city says, because it was inaccurate, it didn’t include Lux’s statement on any official document.

Unlike Lux, other firefighters, including former fire union president Jim Cook left on their own.

“To use firefighting terms, untenable, something I just can’t live with,” said Cook, describing in his words the environment of the department when he resigned. “We’re not training people appropriately, once a month when we do training for the PSOs isn’t enough.”

In a video meant to show community support, the city says PSOs train 4 hours each month, at a skill level the same as any newly hired full time firefighter.
Cook says most departments also require a firefighter specific physical agility test, which Cedar Falls once did.
Now, the exam is one often used by police and the military. Some claim the change was because many PSO’s couldn’t pass the firefighter exam.

“Not everybody is physically or mentally capable of doing this job, that’s why you put those tests in place, so that you get qualified candidates,” said Cook.

Director Olson recently defended the qualifications of several PSOs who were promoted to train as fire department supervisors, saying they have years of experience. In a previous story, city leaders acknowledge the promotions were a way of dealing with firefighters resistant to the idea of PSO’s.

“I had a PSO send me this over the weekend and asked me to say this. When a firefighter works along a public safety officer for 4 hours during training session or 24 hours during a shift and won’t speak to them the entire time, they’re not helping the program out and they’re not helping us succeed,” said Olson.

Olson and Brown have also expressed that more grievances have been made by the firefighter’s union in the last few months compared to the last few years.

Here’s a brief summary of some of those grievances, according to an email from Fire Chief John Bostwick.

August 21, 2018 – hearing was related to a firefighter not getting a text message for overtime.  This overtime was later offered to another firefighter to fill.  Supervisors at fire have used text message to communicate overtime opportunities for many years.  Previous to the hearing the firefighter was offered by management the opportunity to be placed at the top of the list for overtime. He declined stating that his resolution was to either be paid the money for 24 hours of overtime of over $1,000 or to be brought in on a day he was not needed to work and collect the overtime. 

July 23, 2018 – hearing was related to the Fire Union wanting to be paid more to conduct rental inspections while on normal duty.  This issue was addressed in 2001 with an arbitrator who decided in favor of the City ruling the Union members were not due additional pay to conduct inspections while on duty.  This was again grieved in 2015 to the City Administrative Committee which determined the Union members were not due additional pay to conduct inspections while on duty.  Then in July of 2018 the Union again grieved the matter.  During the latest hearing the Union President conceded that there had been no significant change in any of the practices from the previous grievance or arbitrations. 
April 24 2017 hearing was related to a verbal reprimand given to a firefighter following what was considered an inappropriate Facebook post during the 2016 flood.  This post represented himself as a Cedar Falls Firefighter who warned the public if they did not get out of the flooded area they would get a verbal reprimand and have to pay him with an alcoholic beverage.”

Cook said he believes the city is just trying to save money. With this program, the city says it saves some money by not having to increase staffing. Councilman Rob Green asks the city in the video above to form a 5 year plan for the program, so far nothing has been announced.

The city says it has approximately 16 PSO’s currently in firefighter training, with 3 being certified this week, ,soon the number of people whom they consider professional firefighters will raise to 63.

The City of Cedar Falls has been releasing information on the PSO program through this YouTube Channel  and a Facebook page. The city also mailed out a special edition of its quarterly newsletter.

The group who asked citizens to come to Monday’s city council meeting is called Stand Up for Safety Cedar Falls, here’s a link to their Facebook and YouTube channel.

The local firefighter’s union has also released quite a bit of information, you can read some of that here. 

Taylor Vessel

Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter
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