116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NORTH LIBERTY — The North Liberty Fire Department is recruiting three full-time firefighters while also pursuing a location for a second fire station as the city grows and faces an increased number of calls for help.
The full-time firefighters and additional station would help reduce response times, address rising call volumes and prepare the department for the coming years. The North Liberty department’s call volume already is outpacing Fire Chief Brian Platz’s predictions. He was hired in 2017 as the department’s first full-time chief.
The department’s call volume last year was 1,648 calls. So far this year, firefighters have responded to just under 1,400 calls through October. Platz said October alone had roughly 180 calls — a record month for the department.
“It seems like every day we have conversations about trying to anticipate the next issue or the next benchmark,” Platz said. “ … I have to keep being reminded it's OK to stop and look around a little bit and realize where we came from and all the progress that we've been able to make in the last five years.”
In order to meet the needs of residents, the department and city decided the second fire station should be located along St. Andrews Drive. This area on the southwest side of town will see increased activity with the new University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics campus and events at Centennial Park.
“The station has to be in the right spot for decades to come, and that's not lost on us,” Platz said, adding that the department is trying to stay ahead of the growth in that area.
The City Council is expected to hear an update on potential sites for the second station in December.
Chief’s arrival launched changes
North Liberty’s fire department has evolved and grown in the five years since Platz was hired. When he started, there were three paid staff members and about 25 to 30 paid-per-call volunteer firefighters. Now, the department is a combination of about 19 paid staff members — ranging from full-time to part-time — along with 33 paid-per-call firefighters, Platz said.
“We're just so fortunate to have Chief Platz on board,” City Administrator Ryan Heiar said. “ … What he has done for our department has just been phenomenal, and we're happy to have him here as a resource.”
After Platz was hired, a staffing plan was put together based on call volume, the city’s growth and development and turnover. That plan indicated the department would have to start hiring full-time firefighters in fiscal 2023, which is the current fiscal year.
It was also important for Platz to create a positive and healthy culture in the fire department.
“Nobody wants to volunteer their time or hang out at a place where they're not appreciated or it's not fun to be a part of,” Platz said. “One of the things we really worked hard on — and it's something that takes work every day — is creating a culture and creating an environment where people want to belong.”
Recruiting new firefighters
The department is actively recruiting for three full-time firefighters thanks to a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The funds will be received over three years.
There were a couple of factors signaling the need to hire full-time firefighters, Platz said. The department was seeing its volunteer firefighters leaving after three to five years, as well as feeling burn out due to high call volumes.
“We were lucky enough to get selected, which tells me that if we were selected and awarded that grant, that the folks reading the grants saw the need,” Platz said.
Each of the three new firefighters will work a 24-hour schedule and then be off for 48 hours. This will allow the city to always have one full-time firefighter on duty. The full-time firefighter on duty will help supervise two part-time firefighters, creating a three person crew every night.
The three new firefighters will be stationed at the current fire station for the foreseeable future, Platz said.
Along St. Andrews Drive is ‘best location’
The fire department and city used strategic planning, response time analysis and other data to help inform the location of a second station. The research indicated that the next station should be along St. Andrews Drive.
Platz said this location will allow the department to respond quicker to the increased calls from the south and west parts of town, as well as stay ahead of the growth expected in this area. The location will cut many critical travel times in half, according to the city.
Being located along St. Andrews would also allow the second station to assist the main station on West Cherry Street, Platz said. Last year, more than a quarter of the time the station was on a call, a second call was received.
The second station will be a pay-per-call station the department will grow into, Platz said.
“This location is the best location for 50 years,” Platz said.
Addressing resident concerns
The next step is moving forward with a specific site. The city has identified a spot across the street from Centennial Park, but residents of the adjacent Harvest Estates neighborhood have raised concerns.
Residents are worried about potential noise and additional activity and how they may affect property values, Heiar said.
The city is keeping this site in mind but also looking at other locations farther west on St. Andrews Drive, Heiar said.
Platz said he understands residents’ concerns and wants the department to be a community partner. He pointed to the main station’s location near Penn Elementary School and a residential area. More than 40 percent of the department’s calls are responded to without emergency lights and sirens Platz said.
“I think we’ve been good neighbors for everybody,” he said.
And once a fire station is near a neighborhood, “we’re that much closer to your emergency,” Platz said.
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