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Police, fire unions seek assurances their ranks will grow

The fire chief and labor union president agree: Lincoln's 249-member firefighter force is stretched thin.

Lincoln Fire and Rescue has added eight full-time firefighters since 1990. In the same period, the city's population has swelled by nearly 87,000 — equal to two Kearneys and a Papillion.

Overtime for firefighters has surged, injuries have increased and response times have dragged as demand for their services continues to climb, said Ron Trouba, president of the Lincoln Firefighters Association. And pressure on the city's handful of firefighter-paramedics — who make hundreds of swift medical decisions each day — keeps building.

"It is having an increasing and definitive impact on the mental health of our employees," Trouba said.

He wants the department to mandate four firefighters per rig, putting Lincoln in line with national insurance and fire-service safety guidelines. To accomplish that goal, the city would need to add more than 30 men and women to its force.

But Fire Chief Micheal Despain said while more firefighters are needed, the city should remain flexible.

The fire union launched labor negotiations with city officials in October. Those could last months.

Lincoln's rank-and-file police officers, who have raised concerns about staffing levels within their own department, are covered under a separate deal through August 2019. 

The police force has added officers recently, but their union insists the Lincoln Police Department is merely making up for slow hiring practices. 

Further, management repeatedly changes schedules to accommodate staffing levels, at the risk of driving officers to other departments, said Chris Milisits, president of the Lincoln Police Union. And officers continue to do more than just fight and solve crimes, chewing up their time.

Both the police and fire forces have done remarkable work keeping the city safe with the staffing levels they have, but the status quo will be hard to maintain, city officials said. 

"You’re spreading the same number of people over a larger and larger area," said Tom Casady, the Lincoln's public safety director. "You can do that to a certain point. But at some point, you have to deal with the growth."

'We make it work'

RILEY JOHNSON, Journal Star 

Christian Barth

Inside Station No. 7 at Cotner Boulevard and A Street, firefighter-paramedics Christian Barth and Brent Jones are at different stages of a high-burnout job.

Barth is in his second year at Lincoln Fire and Rescue. Jones is heading into his seventh. Paramedics usually last about six years before switching jobs within the department or moving on, Despain says.

As the highest medical authority on emergency calls, paramedics are responsible for life-and-death decisions, and sometimes encounter uncooperative or combative patients, the chief said. And the work isn't done once they treat a patient or leave them at the hospital: They still need to restock their ambulances, and complete patient charts and other paperwork.

Near-hourly calls can make the job feel like living with a newborn, Barth said. Lunch breaks following the start of work at 7 a.m. can come as late as dinner time, and some nights are so busy they don't sleep.

"We're constantly trying to stay ahead of it, and we're working ourselves into the ground while we're doing it," Jones said.

Paramedics like him regularly pick up 12 overtime hours after their 24-hour shift to help the city meet its minimum staffing levels.

Earlier this year, Jones reached a tipping point. 

The recently divorced Omahan was diagnosed with job-related post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by an emergency call he worked where a teenager close in age to his own daughters was killed in a car crash, he said.

Jones spent 30 days at a newly opened mental health treatment center for firefighters in Maryland.

Despain knows his paramedic forces are stressed, he says.

RILEY JOHNSON, Journal Star 

Brent Jones

The department rotates them between ambulances and fire engines to give them a change of pace. It also runs additional medic units three days each week, during targeted hours, to meet higher demand and reduce the number of calls handled by each ambulance.

Despain says the city's shortage of paramedics stems from unbalanced hiring strategies before his arrival in 2016.

He asked some firefighters to recertify as paramedics when he took the reins at the department last summer, but the handful of firefighters only agreed to work as paramedics for 18 months.

Now, the chief's goal is to only hire paramedics and train them to be firefighters. That makes it tough to build the headcount at Lincoln Fire and Rescue. 

"We hire absolutely as fast and furiously as we can,” Despain said.

Not all applicants prove capable of doing the work, and progress comes slowly: "I’ll hire five or six people, and in the same time, I’ll lose four to five people through attrition."

And once hired, there's still a lag before those firefighters are street ready.

The same is true at the police department, where it takes 18 months to recruit and train an officer so they're able to work alone, said Chief Jeff Bliemeister.

While violent crime in Lincoln has been decreasing for years, reflecting national trends, investigating those crimes comprises just a small part of an officer's workload, Bliemeister said.

In Lincoln, police are the front-line workers for handling drunks and helping people who experience mental health crises, said Casady. And special events at Pinnacle Bank Arena and elsewhere push demand for off-duty officers and stand-by medical crews.

From 2015 to 2016, requests for off-duty officers — paid for by the requester — increased 12 percent, Bliemeister said. Some had to be turned down.

"If it was (just) crime, things would be looking great,” said Casady.

The lack of unassigned time for Lincoln's officers is a concern, hampering their ability to do proactive enforcement and community engagement, the chief said. 

Milisits, a criminal investigator, said fewer opportunities to specialize or advance, and moving to shorter shifts and longer work weeks has soured morale among some in the ranks — particularly those who work nights and lose part of their weekends to catching up on sleep.

As many as eight Lincoln officers have recently applied to join the Omaha Police Department, which would represent a fifth of a patrol team.

"We paid to train those folks, they are veteran officers, but yet we're losing them to other departments," Milisits said.

But Bliemeister said many of those officers have ties to Omaha or interest in specialized assignments the Lincoln department doesn't have. He said he isn't worried about the impact losing them would have on operations in the city.

"That's what our staff does best is adapt to the situation," Bliemeister said.

His strategic plan calls for adding five to seven new officers per year over the city's authorized strength, as Lincoln's population is projected to add 3,500 people annually, he said.

So far in his tenure, Bliemiester has been able to add 11 new officers, including six recruits who will begin in the police academy in January.

In all staffing levels, there is no magic number, Director Casady said. The fire department's strategic plan is still being developed.

Trouba and the union want assurances the department will look to grow its ranks. He said his goal of mandating four firefighters per rig would cost about $2.5 million annually.

Mayor Chris Beutler this week argued that the City Council should adopt a resolution in the next year to expand the city's spending authority 1 percent, in part to give it flexibility to address staff shortages in the coming years.

Councilwoman Cyndi Lamm opposes that measure because she said the city should address these issues in budgets.

"This is coming across as urgency now," but if it were truly a priority, Beutler's administration would have dealt with it in previous budget proposals, Lamm said.

Councilman Jon Camp agrees that the city can address these issues within its regular budgets if the mayor's office prioritizes public safety in its proposals. And he suggested the city look for ways to better deploy its fire resources to more efficiently meet medical needs.

Beutler is a Democrat. Camp and Lamm are Republicans.

Rick Hoppe, Beutler's chief of staff, said the administration is trying to tackle staffing issues in its budgets, and after putting money toward adding police officers and replacing aging fire rigs this year, the mayor will turn attention to the fire department's staffing in his next budget proposal.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Lincoln Police officers salute in front of the Justice and Law Enforcement Center during a memorial ceremony in May to honor fallen law enforcement officers during National Police Week. 

Easing the pressure

Since his time in treatment, Jones' outlook on work has changed.

His new set of tools has given the man with "Courage" tattooed on his left forearm the ability to deal with the trauma and stress of his job. He heads to the gym now on his way home and has turned away from alcohol as a means to relax, he said.

He's excited to come to work.

Adding some firefighters could ease the pressure throughout the city, Barth and Jones said.

On their shift Wednesday, they each responded to more than a dozen calls — an especially busy day for the medics at the station nicknamed "Animal House."

No matter how much of a zoo the city becomes on a given day, they don't fixate on the magnitude of emergencies across town, Barth said.

"All you can do is worry about what's in front of you."

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'This is a witch-hunt': Conservative faculty, students at UNL weigh in on senators' call for changes amid political debate

Three state senators who accused the University of Nebraska-Lincoln of being hostile to conservatives last week will offer a list of expectations to administrators to make campus more welcoming for those students.

Details of the expectations won't be made public until Sens. Steve Halloran of Hastings, Steve Erdman of Bayard and Tom Brewer of Gordon meet with UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Hank Bounds, Halloran said in a phone interview Friday.

He added the recommendations wouldn't carry the full weight of the Legislature, but would express concern "about accountability ... and at some level, transparency" at UNL.

“We’re going to give them some time to implement what we are requesting they do,” Halloran said. "Actions speak louder than words."

Questions surrounding the political climate on the UNL campus intensified after an Aug. 25 incident between Kaitlyn Mullen, a second-year UNL student from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and UNL graduate student Courtney Lawton.

Courtesy photo 


Mullen had set up a table near the Nebraska Union to recruit for Turning Point USA before Lawton and others arrived to protest the conservative student organization. Video captured Lawton, an English department lecturer, calling Mullen a “neo-fascist” and making inappropriate gestures.

Halloran said the three senators, all Republicans, were dismayed at the response by the university, which removed Lawton from her teaching duties due to a safety concern and not for disciplinary reasons.

“There was too little action and too many words,” Halloran said, which led to a recent opinion piece signed by the senators and published in several newspapers accusing UNL of being hostile to students who hold conservative viewpoints.

Halloran said the incident between Mullen and Lawton is part of a broader trend of liberal bias within Nebraska’s only public university system.

“My email is filling up with people who are currently engaged as students and past graduates giving their stories about the bias toward conservative students,” he said. “This isn’t a one-off example. It was a very dramatic example, but it’s not a one-off.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts said university leaders would be right to "step up their efforts to make sure conservatives feel welcome on campus."

"The August incident has highlighted concerns about the liberal bent of academia," Ricketts said in a statement. "The University of Nebraska has an opportunity to set itself apart as a public university that fosters spirited debate and a supportive learning environment for students across the political spectrum."

ShellyKulhanek / Nati Harnik, Associated Press file photo 

Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings speaks in during the 2017 session.

Students describing themselves as conservative who spoke to the Journal Star said they have not witnessed any coordinated effort to shut down views on the right side of the political spectrum, but added a perception exists that can chill conservative viewpoints.

“I don’t personally feel that any professors or some overarching group at UNL is pushing down conservative students,” said Sally Hoffmann, a junior criminal justice and political science major from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “The population of the university is just overwhelmingly liberal, and it’s easy for professors to make the assumption that everyone is of the same mind.”

Hoffmann, who described herself as a libertarian, said she has been a part of classes with vigorous discussion among students and faculty with different viewpoints. She said she’s also chosen to hold her tongue in certain situations.

“While I don’t mind defending my views to a lot of people, when I feel it’s me and another student in the classroom versus 25 others, it’s easy to be shouted over,” she said. “But that’s not just the professors, that’s just students and the whole environment.”

Hoffmann is part of Young Americans for Liberty which organizes events on campus to draw attention to civil liberties and frequently finds common ground between conservative and liberal students.

YAL’s biggest challenge, said Trevor Reilly, a junior mechanical engineering major from Omaha, can come from engaging with other students in the campus’s public spaces, not in dealing with the faculty or administration.

“It’s kind of a big tent, we pull a lot of people from both the right and the left,” Reilly said. “It’s not uncommon for people in the liberty movement to be called a Nazi and a snowflake in the same day.”

Kyle Upp said while he has never felt uncomfortable sharing conservative views, other students in the UNL College Republicans have described occasions where they have held back opinions they feared could cross an instructor.

“It’s not that hard to find out that a majority of professors in certain departments are on one political side — not to say that’s bad,” Upp said. “What’s bad is when students can’t engage in effective dialogue even though students and a professor are on opposite sides.

“We don’t have a lot of issues where this comes up, but it does happen,” he added.

Upp said the College Republicans have had no trouble organizing at UNL and have invited prominent Republicans to campus, including Ricketts, Rep. Don Bacon and Brewer, who later criticized NU for its treatment of conservatives.

While students share some concerns, faculty at UNL say they don’t see any problem with one side of the political spectrum dominating the debate on campus.

Gerard Harbison has advised conservative student groups like the College Republicans, Americans for Prosperity and Huskers for Rubio, and championed conservative causes like the 2008 ballot initiative that ended affirmative action in the state.

“I’ve had as large a conservative footprint as anyone else at UNL in the last quarter century and never once felt the university did anything to punish me for those views,” the chemistry professor said.

Harbison said an “open hostility to academia and academics in general” across the country has spread to Nebraska following the Aug. 25 incident, referencing calls from lawmakers to fire English faculty member Amanda Gailey after she was photographed during the Turning Point USA protest.

“I never thought I’d be standing up for Amanda Gailey — our politics are completely different — but she’s entirely within her rights and this is a witch-hunt,” Harbison said.

KevinAbourezk / Courtesy photo 

Professor John Hibbing

John Hibbing, who teaches courses examining the intersection of politics and psychology, said faculty have met to discuss the importance of healthy debate inclusive of all views.

“One of the things I really like about Nebraska is we have a healthy mix of political views,” Hibbing said, adding that enrolling students from rural and urban parts of the state “really makes for a fun class where you can get things going.”

In one of his classes, Hibbing said he often proposes radical reforms to American political systems — abolishing the Senate, for example, or doing away with the Electoral College — to stir debate.

Some of the theoretical reforms, he said, “get under the skins of liberals more than conservatives.”

Both the faculty and students said there are opportunities to bridge the political divide without intervention by university administrators or state lawmakers.

“Most people are able to set aside politics for the sake of being a normal human being,” Upp said. “I have a lot more to offer than just my political beliefs.”

Hoffmann said students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as faculty members, are free to express their opinions, but that the university should expect a higher level of discourse, not merely the exchange of buzzwords.

“I think as students and a community, we should expect more,” she said. “I would rather see challenges based on ideas as opposed to blanket statements.”

She added as long as faculty are open about their own politics and do not let differences affect grading, UNL will remain an institution of higher education dedicated to free speech and open discourse.

Hibbing concurred, saying those looking in on UNL from the outside aren’t giving students enough credit.

“We as professors have very little influence in terms of changing their views,” Hibbing said. “The notion they just kind of adopt the views put in front of them by a professor or visiting speaker is selling the students short.”