Eastern Iowa volunteer fire departments struggle to keep up
Chiefs face shortage of newcomers as calls for service rise
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The North Liberty Fire Department responded to 1,137 calls for help in 2016, an 11 percent increase in a year.
And according to a recent report to the City Council for the mostly volunteer department, the demand is expected to keep rising, nearly doubling to 2,000 calls for service by 2030.
As the city grows and reliance on its first responders grows with it, North Liberty faces a question also gnawing at other Eastern Iowa fire departments: Can they find enough volunteers to keep up?
The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide reached a recent low of 756,400 in 2011, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The numbers since have rebounded somewhat but, like in North Liberty, calls to fire departments in the United States continue to rise. There were 33.6 million calls for service nationwide in 2015.
The issue especially resonates in Iowa, where more than 90 percent of the 731 registered fire departments are all volunteer and another nearly 6 percent are mostly so, the U.S. Fire Administration reports.
In North Liberty, Interim Fire Chief Bill Schmooke — one of the department’s few paid, part-time members — said when he started with the city in 2006, the roster had 35 to 40 members. These days, the department has 42 members with the hopes of going up to 50 one day.
While the department has seen a net gain of a handful of firefighters in the last decade, the department’s call volume for 2016 represents a 63 percent increase from the 697 calls it responded to in 2008. Those include reports of fires, medical emergencies and alarms.
“It’s been quite a percentage increase in less than 10 years,” Schmooke said of the calls. “Our roster hasn’t increased a whole lot.”
North Liberty is not alone. Other departments in Eastern Iowa say they’re facing the same dilemma.
Why are volunteer fire departments locally and across the country struggling to find recruits?
Simply put, the times have changed, said Hiawatha Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Nesslage.
When Nesslage joined his first volunteer fire department back in 1983, it mostly was made up of men who lived and worked in town and wanted to help out. The department trained once or twice a month and had maybe two to three calls a week, he said.
“It was relaxed,” he said. “It was social.”
Nowadays, with many fire departments responding to medical calls also, the volume is more like 100 calls a month for agencies like Hiawatha, which has 50 members — seven of whom are paid. Training is more extensive and vigorous, too. All that creates more strain on families and employers, he said.
“Today, if I have a volunteer and they get sent on a call, it’s more often viewed as an interruption,” Nesslage said. “Families don’t want them to leave. ... The whole scope of what it means to volunteer has changed a lot in 30 years.”
And, people simply seem busier these days, Nesslage said. More households have both parents working and their children are involved in more activities.
“I’ve lost some really good firefighters just because they’re so busy doing stuff with their kids,” he said.
The communities that volunteer fire departments serve have changed, too.
Coggon Fire Chief Brian Rowe, who has been with the department since 1978, remembers when businesses filled the community and many of them employed men who volunteered at the fire department. Today, many of the residents work out of town.
“That leaves the town empty, especially during the daytime hours,” Rowe said. “That’s where the biggest problem is.”
Coggon has 19 volunteer firefighters — “not nearly enough,” he said.
While volunteer departments face a similar staffing problem, they have different ideas on how to solve it — or even if it can be solved.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Coralville Fire Chief Dave Stannard. “I don’t know the answer to that. I can only speculate.”
For one thing. fire departments are trying to keep the volunteers they already have.
One way is trying to reduce burnout, which occurs when the same volunteers respond to most of the calls while others miss them.
Coralville and Hiawatha address that by requiring a set number of on-duty hours for members each month. Both stations have bunks or bedrooms so members can stay at the station.
North Liberty doesn’t have any beds at its station and instead relies on a mandatory, overnight on-call program that taps three firefighters each evening who are designated to respond.
Schmooke, who served as the assistant chief in charge of recruiting before to stepping in as interim chief, said the fire department is tackling recruitment from a number of angles.
“We’ve been really aggressive in trying to stay ahead of this issue,” he said.
In the last five years, Schmooke has applied for and received two grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grants — worth $170,000 and $280,000 — go to recruitment and retention, Schmooke said.
In addition to funding his part-time position as assistant chief, Schmooke said, the grants have gone toward purchasing gear for newcomers. Money also has gone to the department’s awards and recognition program, and pays for things like supplemental equipment and gift cards for deserving members.
“Something to recognize and to reward our members that are going above and beyond,” Schmooke said.
The department also uses the funds to recognize members for length of service. At certain milestones, members are presented with a plaque and a check — $300 for three years of service, for example.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a little bit to show the sacrifice these people give to the community,” Schmooke said.
With the latest round of grant funding, the department instituted a tuition assistance program in the form of a scholarship for up to $5,000. Schmooke said the scholarship can be applied to any pursuit in higher education, even if not fire service or emergency medical services.
Funds have also gone toward website development, creating a recruitment video and social media campaigns, Schmooke said.
“Nobody does this for a part-time job,” he said. “This is a volunteer department that recognizes how busy we are and we do our best to incentivize engagement.”
Coggon also is trying to increase its numbers, but through different means, Rowe said.
In addition to the department’s long-running cadet program — open to 14-17 year olds — Rowe has created different categories of membership to fit the interests and availability of recruits.
The associate program is available to volunteers outside of Coggon. They have the same duties as a full member, but do not have voting privileges for department business and are recruited to staff the station 24 hours a month.
The Fire Corps program is available to people who want to help the department, but don’t want to actually fight fires. Rowe said corps members can be trained on changing out breathing apparatus, running the pump on an engine or learning how to drive a tanker — useful in situations where water must be transported.
“That frees up firefighters who actually have their hands on the hose lines and are going in to fight the fires,” Rowe said.
The department also allows for members who wish to respond only to medical calls.
Rowe said in addition to adding three new firefighters in recent months, a retired firefighter also came back as a member of the corps.
“That’s encouraging,” he said. “Unfortunately, the three firefighters that joined work outside of town in the daytime.”
Nesslage said Hiawatha is starting to have conversations about how to address the recruitment issue. One potential avenue is to try to attract veterans looking for the fellowship they enjoyed in the military, as well as a way to serve the community.
Either way, Nesslage said, people everywhere should consider volunteering at a department.
“If you’re interested in it, go talk to somebody,” he said. “The need exists in almost every community. ... Without volunteers, it isn’t going to happen. When you start looking at these little towns, they have to have volunteers.”
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