Iowa Firefighters Call for Changes to Paid On-call Program

CEDAR FALLS | The city’s fire department has undergone several significant transformations over the last 10 years, and Jim Cook, president of the Cedar Falls Firefighters Association, thinks a lot of them have hurt more than helped.

A paid on-call program instituted in 2006 allows city employees to receive cross-training as firefighters and police officers. Concerned about cost effectiveness and disparities in experience levels, Cook thinks the City Council should eliminate the program.

“In theory it’s good,” Cook said, “in practice not so much.”

The end of June ushered in another big change: the reduction of minimum staffing levels from seven to six firefighters per shift.

“When we’re already working on a razor-thin margin of error, you’ve just made that margin slimmer,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, two recently retired firefighter positions will remain vacant due to budget concerns --- concerns Fire Chief John Paul Schilling said also played into his recent contemplation of closing an additional fire station. Stations 1 and 2 will remain open, but the thinning trend has not gone unnoticed by Cook.

“They keep telling us to do more with less,” he said. “Everybody really does less with less.”

At the beginning of this month the city’s fire and police departments reorganized under the umbrella of a single public safety department. While the transition has been smooth so far in Cook’s eyes, he’s worried the restructuring signifies more drastic changes to come --- the complete replacement of full-time firefighters and police officers with a hybrid, two-in-one public safety force.

Paid on-call

There are currently 14 full-time city employees who participate in the paid-on-call program. POC participants receive training in line with state standards to fulfill the roles of fire and police first-responders and can be called upon to perform at a moment’s notice.

Participants are required to work 16 extra hours a month and receive four hours of monthly training. They are paid either their overtime rate or $7,000 extra a year. According to information provide by Public Safety Director Jeff Olson, that averages out to about $3.08 per hour for employees who can fill two job functions as necessary.

The POC program is one of three “alternative staffing options” available for police and fire employees, the other two being reserve officers for police and part-time employees for fire.

“The biggest advantage to having reserves, part-time or POCs is the availability of help at a lower cost when more employees are needed,” Olson said. “This could be a call of a serious nature, special events when we can predict call levels to be higher … or when staffing levels are low due to vacations or injuries.”

But Cook thinks the POC program is bad news in terms of safety and cost.

“You’re taking a less-trained police officer and making them a pseudo-firefighter and taking a less-trained firefighter and making them a pseudo-police officer,” Cook said. “Someone please tell me how that makes sense.”

Cook argues putting less-experienced people on the scene of a call detracts from everyone’s safety.

“There are times I have to explain what needs to be done when I don’t have time to be doing that,” Cook said.

Whether the program actually saves money is unclear.

Minutes from the closed meetings of a budget task force created last year reveal department heads and city officials have mixed feelings about the financial viability of the POC program.

During a meeting on May 2 last year, Olson noted he had heard concerns from police employees the POC program was “not showing a savings,” and that certain employees were working beyond the 16-hour maximum.

The task force later asked Schilling to compile a cost comparison of POC versus part-time firefighters over a two-year period. According to the minutes of the Sept. 5 meeting, Schilling found POCs contributed 1,138 hours of work at a cost of $37,000, while part-time firefighters worked 3,007 hours at a cost of about $30,000.

In other words, part-time firefighters worked nearly triple the amount of hours worked by POC participants for $7,000 less.

When the task force met again in November, concerns about the program remained unresolved, though an unattributed statement in the minutes reads “Recommendation at this time is that the POC program does not appear cost effective.”

Neither Public Safety Director Olson nor Deputy Director Schilling recall who made that recommendation, but they both agree cost-effectiveness is in the eye of the beholder.

“It depends on how you look at it,” Olson said. “Some people are looking at it strictly hourly, but availability is another factor.”

Having the extra personnel available at a cheaper rate than overtime pay during weekends and special events, whether they put in actual work or not, makes the program worth the cost, Olson said.

Cook remains unconvinced.

“They need to end the inefficient POC program,” he said. “It has proven to be inefficient. Why are they keeping it going?”

Seven to six

Rather than close a second station to keep costs down, Schilling decided to reduce the minimum staffing levels from seven to six firefighters per shift.

With two open fire stations staffed in three different shifts, the department typically schedules nine firefighters per shift. Each shift has a minimum staffing level, the bare essential in times when employees are on vacation or away due to unplanned sickness.

Schilling is confident reducing the skeleton crew from seven to six will not lengthen response times and will not pose a safety hazard to the public or the firefighters on shift.

Cook disagrees.

“Make no mistake about it, services will suffer,” Cook wrote.  “This staffing level, absolutely, will put the public and firefighters in potential harm’s way.  It will reduce the service the fire department provides.  We categorically disagree with Chief Schilling’s statement that it won’t. “

Cook is hoping the City Council will consider raising the minimum staffing level back up to seven.

What the future holds

Cook sees the city moving down the course of completely hybridizing police and fire services to the point where there is only a single pool of public safety employees who perform both duties. It’s a controversial model that has been tried to different effect in cities all over the country, but Cook thinks Cedar Falls should leave well enough alone.

Having only recently assumed the title of public safety director as part of a larger infrastructural reorganization, Olson remains optimistic some if not all of Cook’s concerns can be mitigated through cross-departmental meetings.

But as to Cook’s larger fear about the direction the city is moving in?

Only time will tell.

“I can’t see the city of Cedar Falls not having full-time firefighters,” Olson said. “There is no plan at this point to do that. But I can’t say that 10 years down the road from now there won’t be something different. Ten years ago we didn’t have part-time firefighters, or POCs, or reserve officers on the police side. We didn’t have any of that then, and now we have these programs, and I think they’re all working pretty good. … Things change over time.”

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©2014 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)

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