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Iowa volunteer fire departments struggle to find, keep firefighters
Departments banding together to meet emergency needs
Most of Iowa depends on volunteer fire departments to respond to fires and other emergencies, but the number of available volunteers has been dwindling for years.
Of Iowa’s 738 registered fire departments, 662, or nearly 90 percent, are fully volunteer, according to the Iowa Fire Department Census. As recruiting for these departments gets more difficult, fire chiefs are finding other ways to be prepared for emergencies, including partnering with other departments.
“We know where our next closest resources are,” Hiawatha Fire Chief Mark Powers said.
Mutual and automatic aid
The Hiawatha Fire Department, a mostly volunteer department, partners with the nearby Robins and Monroe Township fire departments in what is called an automatic aid agreement.
An automatic aid agreement is an extension of a mutual aid agreement, a system through which fire departments request help from other nearby departments when facing a fire that one department alone doesn’t have the capacity to fight.
Automatic aid means that whenever a fire is reported in the coverage areas of Hiawatha, Robins or Monroe Township, all three departments are automatically contacted. If the department with jurisdiction reaches the fire and determines it can handle it themselves, they call the other departments and let them know they can turn around.
Powers said this sort of agreement gets more firefighters to a fire faster by removing the time it takes to call for backup.
Automatic aid agreements are popular even within large mutual aid associations, like the Mutual Aid Association of Johnson County. The association is one of the first ever started in Iowa, according to Coralville Fire Chief Orey Schwitzer.
There are nine fire departments in Johnson County, and a few other departments with districts in the county that are part of the association. Many of the departments in the association have automatic aid agreements with their closest neighbors. Coralville has an automatic agreement with Iowa City if a fire is reported on the south side of Interstate 80, and with North Liberty if a fire is reported on the north side.
The Coralville Fire Department is primarily a volunteer department, but with five paid staff. Schwitzer said that while the department has seen a small decline in volunteers in the last few years, the larger problem it faces is retention and availability of volunteers.
Many of the volunteers that train in Coralville are young people who are hoping to eventually get hired at a paying department.
“The folks that I’m recruiting here that join our department, they like to help the community, but they’re really trying to get their career going and find a place where they can get hired. So they’re using it as a steppingstone.” Schwitzer said. “It could be Iowa City or Cedar Rapids, or it could be as far away as Colorado Springs or Kansas City. I have previous members all over the country.”
Besides recruiting volunteers that will stick around, the next problem volunteer departments face is making sure those volunteers are available when emergencies happen.
Most volunteers have other jobs and obligations, so they’re not always available when an emergency happens, Schwitzer said.
“We do some unique things with shifts trying to get folks here in the evening. It’s enough to get a truck out the door fairly quickly. But in the daytime, it’s just the paid staff and all my paid staff have administrative tasks in their job,” Schwitzer said. “During the daytime sometimes it takes us a minute to get everybody rounded up because we could be in four different parts of the community doing our administrative work.”
Powers said he faces the same problem. In Hiawatha, a lot of volunteers work during the day in Cedar Rapids and can’t get back in time to help with a fire.
Anamosa Fire Chief Dan Frank agreed, adding that people’s lack of availability during the day is often what prevents them from volunteering in the first place.
“There’s not enough jobs in Anamosa to keep people local, so we struggle in that aspect,” Frank said. “I think also a lot of it comes down to the fact that everybody has such busy lives anymore.
“People are working 10 to 12 hour days and kids are involved in a bunch of different sports and activities and life just sort of gets the best of you, so that they don’t have the time or the ambition to dedicate toward a volunteer service.”
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