By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Even though they are volunteers, members of the North Liberty fire department do actually get paid, albeit just a stipend at the end of the year.
North Liberty Volunteer Fire Department (NLFD) fire chiefs are seeking to change that.
Fire chief Eric Vandewater and assistant chiefs Bill Schmooke and Bryan Hardin approached the North Liberty City Council on Aug. 13 to present a case for the fire department switching to a pay-per-call system.
“We have done quite a bit of research and contacted several other departments in the state successfully,” said Vandewater. “We think this system will help us with retention of firefighters and will be a cost savings in the long run.”
Schmooke is in charge of recruitment and retention at the NLFD. Current annual stipends range from $500 per regular member to $1,500 for officers, and the department spends about $22,000 of its personnel dollars annually to pay those stipends to firefighters. However, it doesn’t begin to cover a volunteer’s costs of time lost from work, transportation to and from the station or time spent at training sessions.
Vandewater and his crew are proposing instead that firefighters be paid each time they complete a call for service or a public education event, not only to encourage greater participation in calls by department members, but to recognize them for the time, expense and extra effort they undertake. Schmooke believes the pay-per-call system will promote recruitment, retention, participation and continued education within the NLFD.
“We saw this as an opportunity to help with retention and recruitment and incentivize participation. So instead of giving everyone a $500 check whether you participate in 10 percent calls or 80 percent of calls, we wanted to reward those who sacrificed most,” said Schmooke.
The NLFD actually began researching the pay-per-call concept seven years ago. Last month, they provided the council with data on eight other departments with populations similar in population and fire coverage area to North Liberty, including Waukee, Altoona, Oskaloosa and Spencer.
“This system is new to Johnson County, but it’s far from new to Iowa or the U.S.,” said Schmooke, in a phone interview after the meeting. “It’s a very common practice.”
The average length of service for a North Liberty firefighter is about four-and-a-half years, and NLFD data shows that on average, between six and eight firefighters respond to every call, a number that has not changed much over the years.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant provided the resources to the city to hire Schmooke into a paid, part-time position, which allowed him the time to dig deep into the issues of firefighter recruitment and retention, as well as research the pay-per-call system.
“We are finding the demands on any given firefighter are slowly increasing, with the number of calls, public education events, and community outreach programs we do,” said Schmooke. “It’s constantly stretching everyone a little thinner. We are trying to stay ahead of the trend.”
The trend, Schooke said, is a rapid decline nationwide in the number of volunteer firefighters; data shows a 10 percent decrease in volunteers since the mid-1980s that has continued in recent years.
Schmooke said there are a number of reasons for the decline, documented by several national firefighting organizations and FEMA itself.
FEMA has put out a number of reports on the prevailing decline in volunteer firefighters in recent years. Schmooke said the data cites increased demands on the position; 20 years ago, firefighters were not expected to have EMS or HAZ-MAT training, for example.
“Through the years, more has been added to the firefighter’s plate, and all that takes a tremendous sacrifice of time and money, and it’s more than some people are able to take on,” Schmooke said. Also, in a downward economy, when people must work extra jobs to make ends meet, volunteering becomes less of a priority. In addition, especially in rural areas, the family tradition of firefighting has waned as younger generations move to the cities and take on different types of jobs.
Assistant chief Hardin estimated the new pay-per-call system would require an additional $63,000 per year to implement. The department is seeking council approval to initiate the new system by Oct. 1.
The pay-per-call system establishes a base rate of pay derived from a member’s length of service and completion of certain levels of training. If the member participates in up to 17.99 percent of all calls, he or she would make one rate of pay. Those who come to over 18 percent of calls– a substantial percentage– they would receive a $1 bump in base pay. The proposal also contains a slight bump in base pay for members who have certain training credentials.
“We really felt this was a comprehensive method of compensation,” said Schmooke. “It recognizes credentials and the number of calls a member makes, but we are also going to recognize when people participate in public education or stand-by events.” Stand-by activities are those events that require firefighters to be on site and available, such North Liberty Blues & BBQ or fireworks displays. “We felt it was important to compensate firefighters for doing this kind of work.”
They pay-per-call system would not begin for new recruits until after they complete six months of service in the department, said Hardin. New recruits are under direct supervision at all times, with extremely limited duties, he said.
“The first six months for new recruits is a crawl phase; they are getting to know policies and procedures, and getting to know the other members of department. They would not be paid until they earn credentials and fill an operational need,” Hardin said.
“NLFD is still going to be a volunteer department. We are not looking for people who are chasing a paycheck. There is a lot to that first six months. We feel it’s best to forego compensation until that six months period is up,” said Schmooke.
Some recruits join the department with credentials already, and those individuals would be paid from the beginning of their service, said Hardin. For example, if a firefighter comes in with EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training, he or she has already spent the $1,200 or so it costs to earn that certification.
“That’s more value to that firefighter and less we have to pay for,” Hardin said. “So they would be compensated (for calls) right away. It would be saving us quite a bit of money.”
And though Vandewater and the assistant chiefs expect the system will save the city money in the long run, the money is not really what it’s all about.
“We want to make sure they are in it for the right reason. The city and the fire department both invest a lot of time and money into (recruits) as far as gear and training,” said Vandewater.
Because the firefighters hope to implement the change this fiscal year, the extra $63,000 would come from the department’s FY2014 budget.
“The fire department gets a set amount each year set at budget time,” said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar. “If they spend over what is budgeted, they transfer less into their capital equipment fund. So in this case, there would be less transferred into the fire capital fund.”
Councilor Coleen Chipman asked how the city would sustain the extra expenditure in future years.
“That’s the challenge, the decision that this group will ultimately make,” said Heiar. “Each year we’d be transferring less into capital equipment fund. For example, in FY14 we are scheduled to purchase a half-million dollar fire truck with cash on hand. In future years, we’d have to find some other type of revenue stream to fund that, whether it be debt service, cash reserves, or something we discuss at the time of the budget.”
Heiar said his staff checked with the U.S. Department of Labor, and the pay-per-call method of payment does not conflict with any minimum wage laws or the requirements of the Affordable Health Care Act, since the NLFD would still be a volunteer department.
Heiar asked the council if there was a general consensus to move forward on adopting the proposal.
All five council members indicated their support.
“I think this proposal is well thought out,” said councilor Gerry Kuhl. “I like the idea of incentivizing and paying people for when they actually serve, and hopefully you will get a higher degree of participation, which I have been hearing is not always as good as you would like. I am willing to try this and move forward with it.”
The plan is expected to be on the council’s Sept. 10 agenda.