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Sparking community interest

NORTH LIBERTY ON FIRE: A three-part series

Recruitment and retention prove difficult for NLFD

NORTH LIBERTY– Hiring and retaining volunteers has proven especially challenging, not just for the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD), but also for volunteer fire departments across Iowa and across the nation.
More households rely on two or more incomes, parents are busy with their kids’ many activities and the basic time requirement placed on a volunteer firefighter for initial and on-going training has also increased significantly over the years.
In 2012, the NLFD applied for and received a $163,000 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) to address those recruiting and retention issues. SAFER grants were created to provide funding directly to fire departments to increase or maintain the number of “front line firefighters” in their communities.
The grant was renewed in 2016 and runs through 2020.
Interim Fire Chief Bill Schmooke said it was pretty remarkable to receive back-to-back grants.
“We actually received more money (the second time),” he noted. The first grant was for approximately $165,000, he said, with almost $290,000 in the second. “We’re going to do our best to use that money as smartly and as wisely as we can.”
One way is to help ease the burden of firefighter training costs.
NLFD firefighters must complete Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2 and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training within their first 2-1/2 years. New members also undergo in-house training classes. Additional training in hazardous materials (HAZ-MAT) and other specialties also adds to the time demand in addition to regular monthly training sessions and department business meetings.
On top of training hours, the volunteers, technically “Paid On Call” (POC), also respond to emergencies. Lots of emergencies. The NLFD responded to 1,137 calls for service in 2016, a new record for the department, which has been in existence since 1945.
“There’s a lot of creative little incentives and initiatives from the grant to policies … it all plays its part in the overall mission,” said Schmooke, who previously served as a paid part-time assistant chief in charge of recruiting and retention.
His salary for that position has been part of the FIRE-ACT grant, which has also funded a weight room and bunkroom in space formerly used by the city council (when part of the current fire station was also North Liberty’s city hall). In addition, Schmooke spearheaded other avenues to attract new volunteers and to keep the men and women already hired.
“The federal money along with Bill’s initiatives and willingness to be that recruiting and retention coordinator, and to do it well, I think has helped,” said City Administrator Ryan Heiar. “And I agree, the little things are just so important. It’s a tight-knit group. They’re more than co-workers, they’re family, and I think that’s helpful too.”
Heiar said the cohesion reflects the culture Schmooke and others have established within the NLFD.
“That’s going to be our goal for the next chief,” he added, “someone who obviously has the technical knowledge, but also has the personality and ability to build a team, and work in a cohesive group, and foster that family environment.”
“We’ve been able to do some pretty remarkable things,” Schmooke admitted.
In addition to station amenities and improvements, the department is also now able to offer tuition assistance, a referral program and a plethora of awards and recognitions.
“People want to feel appreciated,” Schmooke said. “And, it’s not just feeling appreciated, it’s meaning it. It sucks getting up three times a night when you got to be at work at eight in the morning. ‘I feel your pain, this $50 gas card is the least I can do, but man … thank you,’ you know? We really have turned that money into some good.”
The grant also funded website improvements for recruiting and marketing purposes to get the department’s message out to the community. One avenue, a recruiting video, was shot the week of May 22 and now graces the newly designed website, www.nlfire.org.
Recruiting is a constant challenge, Schmooke said. “It is just a part of the fabric of the volunteer fire service. It’s never ‘easy.’ It just takes a constant beating of the bushes, getting your message out, trying to bring people into the fold.”
Currently the department has 15 applications on file.
“That’s not bad,” Schmooke said. “I’d like to have 25-30 by the end of the summer and start a fall class.”
Having that large pool of applicants allows the NLFD to be more selective with potential new hires.
“It’s important that if you want your bus going in the right direction, you’ve got to put the right people on it,” said Schmooke. “So we don’t just put on everybody who puts in an application. That’s just not how we operate.”
Currently, any person residing in the City of North Liberty, Penn Township or Madison Township who is of sound mind and body and at least 18 years old is eligible to apply and be considered for the position of firefighter. In 2014, the city authorized the department to accept a limited number of applicants from outside the city and fire district. These members are required to put in at least 32 hours of on-call availability per month and typically stay at the station during their shifts.
Applicants undergo a thorough background check, medical examination, an interview and reference checks before a personnel committee discusses and makes their recommendations.
In a 2015 interview, Schmooke said attitude is key.
“An applicant may have every certification and endorsement known to fire-rescue and EMS, but you may not be a good fit for us. Experience counts, but doesn’t automatically mean a person will get the position,” he said.
The NLFD, he added, is not big on patting itself on the back and those looking for the label of hero would be best advised to look elsewhere.
“That’s not what we’re about. We’re more about trying to do a good job.” A hero, he said, is the neighbor who without training or equipment pulls somebody out of a house fire. “You are a trained professional. You have the equipment, you have the team, and when you show up you’re expected to perform.”
While volunteer departments across the state and nation constantly struggle to attract new members, Heiar said North Liberty is fortunate.
The NLFD, although in a young community that tends to be somewhat transient as young professionals pursue career opportunities elsewhere, is seeing more eight-, 10- and even 15-year members.
“We’re starting to build that experience and the numbers are looking pretty strong,” Schmooke said.
The department lost two very senior members with the death of Bob Parker last year after 45 years of service and the retirement of Dave Hubler after 25 years on the department.
“Those are tough legacies to live up to, but we are starting to see a tip in the numbers. We are retaining more, we’re doing good with our retention,” Schmooke said.
Part of being in a younger community means recruiting Millenials, who have grown up more technologically savvy. In response, the department is active across all social media platforms to reach them and communicate with them. Schmooke said they’ve found the Millennials tend to join groups and organizations with a sense of purpose.
“And it doesn’t get any more (purposeful) than being part of a fire department. That’s a sense of purpose. That’s doing something. That’s being a part of the American Fire Service,” he said.
He added the department has made an effort to really push that message.
“You’re not just a volunteer; you’re out there doing it. People all throughout this community and the state would love to be at a department like this. You get a chance to make a real impact on peoples’ lives. And that’s powerful for a 19-year old kid to be able to do the kinds of things they’re able to do here,” he said.

Paying it for all
On top of recruitment and retention, the City of North Liberty is also considering updates to the department, or the construction of a new facility, in addition to equipment upgrades.
“Fortunately we have the benefit of tax base growth to help offset some of those costs,” said Heiar.
However, as operational costs continue to increase, the city may have to adjust its funding. Heiar said the council has discussed options.
“Every year, we’ve been transferring money from our general fund to a capital account,” he said. He explained the formula for determining the fire department’s budget, including contributions from the two townships. At the end of the fiscal year, whatever is left goes into the capital reserve fund.
But, as operational costs rise, the amount going into the reserve fund decreases. Heiar said the council has looked at two concepts: setting aside more general fund money and/or borrowing for new, additional or replacement equipment.
“We’ve been really fortunate over the last 10 years in that we haven’t had to borrow for our equipment because the reserve has been strong,” Heiar said. “But, equipment costs keep going up, and they (fire trucks) are just amazingly expensive. And operational costs keep going up because our calls keep going up, so we’re going to have to take a little bit of a different approach.”
Quint 114, the department’s 75-foot aerial ladder truck is due for replacement, and Heiar said it’s in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). But, the city will likely have to borrow money in order to pay for the new ladder truck.
“We just won’t have that kind of cash on-hand to make that purchase.”
Another concern for Heiar is the state’s budget year runs October through September, while the city’s is July through June.
“They can make a decision in their upcoming budget year that impacts our current budget year, so we could be without revenues (Heiar snapped his fingers) just like that,” he said. He added this was seen earlier this year when several state agencies had to make mid-year budget cuts. “We could be in that same position if they decide to defund the back-fill on the rollbacks.” He said such defunding is not in the state’s budget projections for the next fiscal year, but added, “We’ve seen those types of revenues go away before.”
In his 20 years in city government administration, Heiar said he’s seen instances of the state pulling what were called state-shared revenues away from cities.
“That takes a while to recuperate from that, and it sets everybody back.”