By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Emergencies happen at all hours of the day and night, regardless of weather, weekends or holidays. In North Liberty, a force of about 35 volunteer Firefighter-Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) stand ready 24-7-365 to answer the call.
And they could use some help.
The department responded to 698 calls in 2010 and is on track to reach and even surpass 900 this year. Time spent on emergency responses, as well as in training, meetings, truck and equipment checks and station duties add up fast. The hours take away from family and other activities, and at times, their jobs.
A federal grant was submitted to hire additional volunteers, equip them and train them. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant is administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a competitive process. The North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) was approved for $163,318 to be used over the next four years.
“We’re sort of in a holding pattern” NLFD assistant fire chief Bill Schmooke said, explaining that the city wants to be, “clear on the use of the money.” Schmooke said the SAFER grant does not require a monetary match, so no city dollars will go toward the program.
The grant comes with a very explicit set of guidelines. For example, the traditional practice of issuing used personal protective equipment, or turnout gear of coats, pants, boots, gloves, hoods and helmets to new recruits is gone. Now, new volunteers hired under the program will receive brand new gear, after completing and passing a National Fire Protection Association-approved physical examination. NLFD members already undergo annual physicals, Schmooke said, a practice more and more volunteer departments are following. Firefighting takes a tremendous physical effort and the physicals help to ensure the firefighters are up to the task. Cardiovascular disease and heart attacks are among the leading causes of death for firefighters, along with cancer. For the new recruits, a physical not only shows if they are able to physically perform firefighting duties, it also establishes a baseline condition for what could be a 10 to 15 year career, perhaps longer.
While Schmooke would like to see a firefighter serve for a decade or more, the reality is many are only active for an average of four-and-a-half to five years, particularly in North Liberty, which the assistant chief called, “a young professionals’ city.”
“It’s hard to find people who can put in 15 to 20 years anymore,” Schmooke said. While the department does have some 15 and 20-year veterans, they are the exception. Some factors Schmooke points to include a steady increase each year in the number of calls for service coupled with increased training requirements and other department obligations. “More families are having to work extra jobs to pay the bills. Being a volunteer firefighter does not pay the bills,” he said.
Schmooke sees the grant as a way for the department to be proactive in building up its membership.
“A growing city needs to take steps to meet the growing demand for fire and rescue services,” he said. Currently Schmooke is handling recruitment and retention duties; however, the time required to develop, collect and oversee data is far more than can be done on a volunteer’s time.
The SAFER grant includes money to hire a part-time recruitment and retention coordinator. This person hired will develop, maintain and oversee an active recruitment and retention program for the department. He or she will seek-out new recruits and develop ways to keep current members on the roster. On a quarterly basis, the coordinator will have to collect data on the effort, and report directly to FEMA over the four-year run of the program.
“The coordinator will also be a liaison between the city and fire department staff, hiring new members, and developing an orientation schedule. It’s going to be very labor intensive,” Schmooke said. In addition to the quarterly reports, a biannual accounting of the funds and their use also has to be provided to FEMA.
While the position is new to North Liberty, it is becoming increasingly common throughout the fire service as volunteer departments struggle to attract and retain members.
Among the goals of the position are to increase the length of service for the current firefighters, increase the number of new recruits, and increase the job satisfaction of the members in general.
A volunteer firefighter does not receive a paycheck for his or her services. But, the NLFD offers a small stipend, something they hope the grant will allow them to increase.
“We want to be able to recognize milestones in their volunteer careers,” Schmooke said. For example, a firefighter could receive a $300 bump for three years of service, $500 for five years, $1,000 for 10 years, and so on. “It’s a small incentive, but it may get a person to stay on,” he said,
The grant would also permit the department to give out small tokens of appreciation each month to recognize two firefighters for things such as the number of hours beyond basic obligations, number of emergency calls responded to, or something else above and beyond the call of duty. Tokens could be things such as a gas or grocery card, or even a new piece of personal equipment. Recently, Governor Terry Branstad signed a bill authorizing a $50 tax credit to volunteer fire and EMS personnel, a legislative effort many years in the making, and a realization at the state level of the difficulty in finding and retaining volunteers for emergency work.
Once accepted to the department as a candidate, or probie (short for probationary member), an orientation program occurs within the first month.
During the first year, the new recruit attends a Firefighter 1 program, which teaches the basic fundamentals of firefighting in an internationally accredited program. The class meets once per week for eight to nine months and is often co-taught with the Coralville Fire Department at Coralville’s training facility. Coralville’s classes also frequently have new recruits from other departments in the county.
“It’s nice to see how other departments operate and to get to know their people,” Schmooke said. “It helps us to be more efficient on a fire scene when we’re working with other departments (through mutual aid agreements).”
After passing the written and hands-on skills testing, the candidate then takes Firefighter 2 (FF2) certification classes, a five to six month program which builds on the basic skills and goes deeper into topics such as building construction, fire behavior, fire prevention and administrative topics. Not all departments require this level of certification, with many leaving it up to a firefighter’s own discretion and desire for additional education.
The new firefighter also has to take an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course, which typically meets two nights per week for one college semester. NLFD responds at the basic EMT level to medical emergencies, which account for the majority of their calls. Firefighters have until the end of their second year to complete the FF2 and EMT courses. Hazardous Materials (HAZ-MAT) training, CPR certification, Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS) training is also required.
If those programs aren’t enough to keep a new volunteer busy, an NLFD firefighter can expect to put in about 100 hours each month at the station in training sessions, a monthly business meeting, station duties (truck and equipment checks and maintenance plus housekeeping duties) and public education events (such as school visits and community events).
The NLFD requires 35 hours of training each year (the state mandates 24 hours), with additional hours every two years depending on an individual member’s EMS certification level. Quarterly, the department does in-house skills maintenance for EMS continuing education, and the members have monthly EMS training, often through the use of computer and Internet-based resources.
Those hours don’t include time spent on emergency calls, which come in at an average of three per day. To help ensure staffing is available, the department requires the firefighters to dedicate 32 hours each month to being on call. The on-call program has been in effect for two years and firefighters sign up for at least eight four-hour shifts to increase coverage during times of historically low turnout. “It’s been a good system. It took time to work-out the kinks, and there still are some to work out.” Schmooke said. The program has made the department more efficient, with at least three firefighters on shift at any given time. When an emergency is dispatched by the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) any available firefighter can and often will respond in addition to the on-duty crew.
The department has also implemented a piece of technology called “I’m Responding,” which allows members to hit a key on their smart phones, which then indicates on a screen at the station who is responding to the emergency call, so officers can see at a glance how many firefighters are responding. J-Com also gets the tally, which helps the dispatcher decide if additional pages need to be sent to muster a crew, or if a mutual aid response will be necessary.
“It takes a lot of time, a lot of sacrifice,” Schmooke said. “We’re all volunteers. We have day jobs. We have a life outside the station. But we all help each other out and we’ve got each others’ backs.The amount of reward and the camaraderie is incredible.”
Firefighting is often referred to as the brotherhood, and Schmooke says the NLFD is living proof. “The bonding and friendships that are formed last a lifetime.”
Probationary candidates go through an approval vote at six months and one year, and become vested members after a year. Approval is based on sufficient progress in their training programs and meeting their obligations. “It’s really a matter of showing up, doing your duty, being responsible and being a good citizen,” said Schmooke.
The NLFD has a mentoring program where a new recruit is paired with a veteran firefighter. Mentoring, Schmooke said, makes the new member more confident and more professional in his or her job.
Being a professional is a large part of the NLFD culture, and so is taking pride in its department and equipment.
“Most people we encounter are shocked to learn we’re a volunteer fire department. They don’t realize the time investment; they just assume we’re paid.” The time investment doesn’t translate into a paycheck, but better service to the community. “You’re expected to be the expert in everything. We’ve realized we’re professionals, just like the paid (career) guys. There’s some pride behind being a volunteer firefighter.” Schmooke noted that a lot of career firefighters in departments like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids got their start as volunteers.
“We look for people concerned about community versus looking for the adrenaline rush or the Hollywood portrayal. We want someone willing to be a civil servant and a leader,” Schmooke said. “We can teach the skills, (but) the person’s attitude is the key factor,” as well as the ability to meet the time commitment. “We’ve run into some good applicants who gave it their best, but they just couldn’t make the time commitment. It’s the reality of the times we live in.”
While three recruits started recently, the department hopes to hire 10 more through the grant and is always accepting applications.
“We’re getting busy, we need some help.”
For more information on joining the NLFD, go to the department’s website: www.nlfire.org/recruitment.html .