Cedar Rapids, Iowa City fire departments grapple with evolution of services

Number of duties, response times place more demands on firefighters

Captain John Brandt (foreground) of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department gets into a boat with other members of the department on Monday May 24, 2010 morning to start a boat rescue training session on the Cedar River. (Chris Earl/The Gazette)
Captain John Brandt (foreground) of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department gets into a boat with other members of the department on Monday May 24, 2010 morning to start a boat rescue training session on the Cedar River. (Chris Earl/The Gazette)

When the alarm sounds at the Cedar Rapids or Iowa City fire departments, firefighters might be called out to a motor vehicle crash, a hazardous materials spill, a medical emergency, or – on rare occasions – an actual fire, though a false alarm is more likely.

Since the diversification of services offered by fire departments began 30-40 years ago, fighting fires has becoming a decreasingly smaller function provided by firefighters. Thus far in 2013, actual fires have accounted for less than 4 percent of the calls for service for both the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids fire departments – two of the largest paid departments in the area.

With more services offered – emergency medical responses, hazardous materials and explosions for instance – and the same expectations in terms of response times, the demands on firefighters are likely greater now than ever before.

“It’s an evolving career for all those folks,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Department spokesman Greg Buelow. “Most firefighters, when they get in here, they realize they’re going to do a variety of activities that are going to meet the overall mission of the department, which is to protect property and save lives.

Added Buelow, “It may involve helping a person that has fallen to get up, an entrapment when a garage collapses, a hazardous material spill, a car accident or a threat some place.”

So, how do firefighters prepare to respond to such a wide variety of calls, typically within a matter of minutes? Officials at the two departments credit the amount of training firefighters undergo. However, both the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids departments have made infrastructure changes in recent years to better position themselves for faster response times.

From the time volunteer services were formed locally – 1842 in Iowa City, 1869 in Cedar Rapids – to the 1970s and 80s, the primary function of the local fire departments was fighting fires. That has changed tremendously in recent decades.

“The fire department has evolved quite a bit,” Buelow said.

In the Seventies and Eighties, fire departments starting introducing the medical response services, as well as hazardous materials response and confined space entries, two vital services given Cedar Rapid’s industrial sector.

Iowa City Fire Marshall Brian Greer notes rescue operations offered by the fire departments have become more technical as well, with special operations including high- and low-angle rescue, water and ice rescue, extrications and confined space rescues.

“There’s a whole multitude of things we do now,” Greer said.

Not only are firefighters responding to a greater variety of calls than generations past, but they are responding to those emergencies in a matter of minutes. The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has an organizational goal of turnout times – the time from when an alarm is sounded to leaving the station – of 80 seconds for fire and special operations calls and 60 seconds for emergency medical service calls.

The Iowa City Fire Department has similar performance goals.

“Our goal at the station from that initial page, we want to have our vehicles and personnel with gear on out the door at a minute or under,” Greer said. “It varies by the different types of calls. It’s slightly over with a fire call. If it’s a medical call, it’s basically get down to the vehicle and get out.”

Both departments have a response time – or time spent driving from the station to the scene – of four to six minutes.

In recent years, both departments have made changes to their infrastructure to improve those response times. In 2011, after years of budgeting and planning, Iowa City opened Fire Station 4 in the northeast quadrant of the city. Greer said there has already been a noticeable drop in response times in that area.

“That area on the northeast part of town, we would regularly see response times in excess of eight to 10 minutes,” he said. “With that new station there, that’s cut that down and got it to where we want.”

In Cedar Rapids, the city and fire department took the devastation of the Flood of 2008 and turned it into an opportunity. When flood water crippled the old central station, the city opted to rebuild the central station out of the flood zone on the east side of the river, while rebuilding Fire Station 3, currently located near Coe College, on the west side of the city.

“We moved the fire stations in such a way that nearly 12.5 percent more of the city is within one and a half miles of a fire station than was before the flood,” Buelow said. “It was an opportunity for us.”

Buelow and Greer credit the effectiveness of public fire prevention education in lowering the number of fires the departments respond to each year. But, both men note that no amount of education will prevent all disasters. At the same time, fire departments are now training in even larger scale events such as acts of terrorism, natural disasters and mass casualty events.

Ultimately, it comes down to training, Buelow said.

“If you have an airplane crash or a large fire, you just don’t know all the different variables that might be involved,” he said. That’s where the experience and training becomes invaluable. You just get in the mindset we may not know what we’re going to get into. We’ve had good training. We can work together well as a team to problem solve it.”

While dealing with the problems of the present, fire departments are also looking to the future as the fire department continues to evolve. Assistant Cedar Rapids Fire Chief in charge of operations, Greg Smith, said one change that will continue is responding to calls from a greater “global perspective…ensuring that we’re working with all of the other entities involved in a response.”

Smith also sees public fire safety education becoming more wide-reaching.

“Maybe, moving in the next 20 years or so, we’ll be blurring the lines between strict fire safety and life safety in general,” he said. “And looking to ways we can educate the public on other aspects of safety.”

Noting the advancements in equipment and apparatuses used by the fire department over the last few decades, Greer said changes in technology will also play a role in the progress of the fire department’s services.“You never know what the future holds,” he said. “Depending on what sort of new inventions or technologies come out, those things can change how we operate, as well.” 

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