In 2014, Cedar Falls City Council took a visionary step to modernize public safety services. Under a public safety model, police and fire services are operationally aligned in tactical response, leadership, strategic planning and fiscal management. We are incorporating cross-training, technology and strategy to improve our capabilities. In the old way, police and fire each operated in their silos with minimal interaction, their own bureaucracy and manpower. Cedar Falls is young in its journey, but public safety services are already measurably better and costing less.
A public safety officer (“PSO”) is a cross-trained police officer and firefighter. They are academy-trained and hold both police and firefighter certifications. Existing police and firefighters are eligible to receive training to attain the certifications or even go beyond. The PSO receives an 11% salary premium for their added capability and utility. Like police or firefighters, they also participate in the Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System which provides unique benefits for police and fire personnel, recognition of their commitment and the inherent dangers of the position. On the technology side, public safety also utilizes an innovative fire suppression system (compressed air foam - CAF) that enables rapid response to many fire types with our police patrols on the street. With public safety, we are constantly exploring technologies, tactical strategies and training to improve capabilities. PSOs are the bedrock of our public safety model - capable, flexible and dedicated first responders.
The visionary public safety reorganization was met with resistance. In 2014, the Fire Union cast a public vote of no confidence citing concern for fire staffing levels, claims of public risk, among other things. At the root of it, I suspect the Fire Union simply wants to defend the status quo - to divide police and fire, to add career firefighters to their ranks and ignore the realities of new technology and manpower models. Sadly, ‘their way’ is to add headcount, maintain an insular culture and raise property taxes (roughly 1 firefighter costs in excess $100,000 per year). Today, we spend more than $3.4 million on fire protection and experience less than $1 million in fire property loss. Cedar Falls continues to maintain one of the best fire prevention and response programs in the state and nation as evidenced by our Class 3 ISO rating. Despite this, the Fire Union is waging war on Public Safety attempting to obstruct any attempt at reform and improvement while pursuing a social media blitz full of distortion and propaganda.
The PSO model proves the wisdom of the unified public safety vision. Our response times are reduced, numbers of qualified fire fighters on the scene is increased, technologies and tactics are improved and the total cost of service is minimized. The PSO model is a major culture shift challenging the status quo. The Fire Union is the sole force of resistance; their unwillingness to adapt and be part of the solution puts our citizens at risk. To most cities, such a shift would be impossible, bureaucratic and cultural resistance would make it impossible. But Cedar Falls is made of leaders and believers, we are on the right path.
The Fire Union’s principle argument for more firefighters is based on the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) highly controversial 2001 ‘1710 recommendation’. The issue was debated for 6 years until a consortium of labor groups passed the recommendation. The recommendation calls for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ 4 person per response company (fire lingo for crew). The NFPA was passed with no ‘scientific studies’ on response methods. It was based on fire chief observations and manpower reviews. In 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published its first scientific study (with actual experiments utilizing scientific methods). Naturally, it showed that three firefighters were better than two, four were better than three, five were better than four and so on. Here is the rub, the Fire Union will not recognize PSOs as firefighters. The PSO could be on scene, and ahead of their crew, but the Fire Union will not recognize our trained PSO professionals. In almost all circumstances, Cedar Falls meets or exceeds NFPA recommendations. We design our incident response based on needs, technology, response manpower and infrastructure, not a nearly two-decade old, one-sized-fits all recommendation. And as our fire rating shows (ISO rating), we are doing an excellent job protecting Cedar Falls from fire risk. Incidentally, the ISO rating recognizes PSOs as a legitimate firefighting resource.
PSOs are heroes of our public safety model. For an 11% premium, they are prepared to fight a fire or to arrest a criminal. They are on call, nearby, and prepared. Here are some highlights of Cedar Falls most trained, versatile and efficient responders:
- PSOs ranks will soon grow to 21 officers (a 77% increase over current career firefighter levels) capable of responding to any incident... police, fire or good intent
- Each PSO eliminates 16 hours of non-value-added shift time per firefighter in the fire station (non-value added is defined as time firefighters are in rest-and-ready mode - sleeping, eating, working out, etc.)
- The PSO is a bridge between traditional police and firefighting duty, patrolling or performing police functions while prepared to respond to a fire call
- PSOs are reducing first on-scene incident response time by 1-3 minutes
- PSOs equipped with CAF system can extinguish or knock down exterior fires before the station-based crew arrives
- PSOs (more firefighters on the street) are critical to maintain our Class 3 ISO (fire risk) rating, currently in the top 1% of Iowa
- PSOs (more police on the street) are critical to maintain our crime rate, currently 39% lower than the national average
In 2016, the Fire Union rescinded its no-confidence vote. Many hoped this represented a new era of interdepartmental cooperation and a unified goal to deliver every essential city service at the lowest possible cost. Sadly, it appeared more political than practical. They continue to wage an anti-public safety campaign based on fear and sentimentality. The Union regularly condemns city leaders, staff and cooperating public safety personnel in letters, articles and social media posts. They call their own director and chiefs liars and make misleading, unfounded, and inaccurate accusations of incident response. The condemnations are a series of half-truths and twisted context. In a recent, paid posting to social media, they use fear and tales of imminent death, to elicit public outcry and response. They intimidate trained public safety officers and volunteers from being part of fire operations. Based on the Fire Union’s tenor and tone, I expect another no-confidence vote to condemn our city. This needs to stop.
Public Safety Director Olson, Deputy Public Safety Director Berte and Fire Chief Bostwick deserve accolades for being change agents and successfully ushering in the new era of Public Safety response. They are an amazing professional team committed to developing capability, flexibility and feasibility within our public safety model. Many career firefighters are supportive of modernization, but sadly, the Fire Union serves as a collective mouthpiece supporting the status quo and tradition. The Police Union, on the other hand, has demonstrated its commitment to organizational change and improvement. It heeded the call for more training, staffing flexibility even in light of friction with the Fire Union. The Police Union and the individuals who have been advancing their training and education are the real leaders among us. I sincerely hope the Fire Union can embrace the merits of a unified public safety program and be part of a collective solution.
The city, as measured by outcomes, not headcount, is operating a modern public safety department which delivers one of the highest service levels in the most cost-effective manner possible. We are safer and better protected with a PSO program than any traditional police/fire model. Cedar Falls’ Public Safety Department is a model which many more will follow. It isn’t always comfortable to be on the edge of reform, but it is always satisfying to see the positive results.