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Born to be a firefighter

New NLFD Chief Brian Platz looks to be an agent of change
Brian Platz assumed the duties of fire chief for the North Liberty Fire Department in November and is the first full time-career chief for the volunteer organization. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– As a young boy growing up in Dyersville, Brian Platz developed an early passion for the fire service. His dad was the chief for 18 years and the younger Platz spent much of his time at the station with him.
“Those were the formative years of my life growing up,” he said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes fire, so I think he instilled the love for the fire service in me. I knew from the very beginning I wanted to be a firefighter, and there’s no other course for me.”
Although he studied electronics after high school and took a job repairing copiers, his heart was still very much with firefighting. He recalled working in Cedar Rapids near the former Central Fire Station and seeing the trucks responding to emergency calls. “I wondered if those guys realized just how lucky they were,” he said. He also vowed to apply and test (career firefighter applicants undergo written and physical agility tests to determine eligibility for hiring) as long as he had to in order to secure the coveted job of a career firefighter. His dream came true 25 years ago when the Iowa City Fire Department (ICFD) hired him.
“I got lucky, I got really lucky,” he said. “It was all I hoped and prayed for.”
Platz and his wife moved to Solon soon after, where he also joined the Solon fire department (volunteer). “Growing up in, and my love for, the volunteer fire service… that occupied a pretty big part of my heart,” he said.
He rose through the ranks of both departments, earning promotion to lieutenant, shift captain, battalion chief and finally deputy chief with the ICFD and rising to an assistant chief position for Solon, where he also spent 10 years as the department’s training officer.
He also served as president of the Iowa Firefighters’ Association from 2004-05 and past president from 2005-06. “I think my Dad and I were the first father and son past presidents,” he said.
Not long after taking the deputy chief’s position in Iowa City, a completely unexpected opportunity arose close by. For all his ranks, becoming the chief was never a goal growing up in the fire service.
“I was looking more at captain, lieutenant for sure. I loved the job of a lieutenant. You’ve got your crew, your rig, your station and you.” He spent 10 years as a lieutenant, then took a promotion to shift captain, where he was in command of the department’s ladder truck, which was also the first rig he was assigned to starting out, and the truck he drove on his last shift with the ICFD.
Platz kept working up the chain of command to battalion chief (six years) and deputy chief, second-in-command to his good friend, John Grier.
“I never, ever thought I’d be wearing five bugles ever in my life.” Fire officer rank insignia is often a bugle, a nod to the “speaking trumpets” used on the fire ground from the earliest days to convey orders, and range from one bugle for a lieutenant to five for chief.

The consultant, a vacancy and a historic change
Eric Vandewater, a captain with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, served as chief of the NLFD from 2005 until November of 2016 when he retired from the department after 16 years of service. Assistant Chief Bill Schmooke, the department’s recruiting and retention officer and a lieutenant with the ICFD, assumed the chief’s duties on an interim basis. Vandewater, Schmooke and Asst. Chief Bryan Hardin (the fire marshal and also a lieutenant with the ICFD), served in a paid, part-time capacity while the rest of the department was, and continues to be, staffed by volunteers.
The City of North Liberty commissioned a study of the department in 2016 and hired Donald Cox, a consultant in emergency services and retired West Des Moines fire chief, to conduct the study. Cox delivered his findings to the city council in March. Among Cox’s many recommendations was hiring a full-time fire chief, an idea first considered a decade before.
“We’re at a point now where we’re pushing 20,000 people with a high call volume,” North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar said in a May interview. “We’re at a point where it makes sense to have that full time chief.”
Later that month the city hired Moulder and Associates, LLC, a professional consulting and recruiting firm specializing in executive-level law enforcement and fire service positions, to conduct a nationwide search for qualified candidates for the position. Among the requirements were: experience in a career (full time) fire department as well as a volunteer department. Candidates also needed to have either attended or be attending the National Fire Officer’s School at the National Fire Academy and had to have leadership experience with an emphasis placed on those working in a combination (career and volunteer firefighters together, such as the Marion Fire Department) organization.
Forty-eight applications were received, whittled down to 15 and eventually five men were selected for final consideration via a daylong assessment. Among them was Platz.

The attraction of North Liberty
Platz said the type of work he will be doing, and the “incredible opportunity that exists here” are what made the chief’s job so appealing to him. “Knowing how this city is growing, and how it’s developing, and the fire department is ripe for change,” he said.
Leading up to his assessment, he sat down with some of the NLFD members he knew and asked them about the environment and future of the department.
“Everyone I talked to talked about change,” he said. “They were excited for change. I’m a continuous improvement kinda guy. I drank the Kool Aid at Iowa City, went through their accreditation process years ago, and their accreditation model was all about ‘how do we change to be more effective and efficient?’”
Being a volunteer in Solon and a career firefighter in Iowa City raised in a volunteer department meant he knows what the volunteer fire service is all about.
“Maybe I could have the best of both worlds,” he said. “I had a couple of people come up to me during this process and remind me that I used to tell people that being a paid chief on a volunteer department was a dream job. I kinda forgot that because I was focused on other things, so I was reminded of that, which is kinda eerie, because it came true.”
Another factor was the positive response he and his wife received when asking people about living in North Liberty. “Everyone was falling all over themselves talking about how great a place it is to live,” he said. “So, that got my wife excited about moving here as well.”
Ultimately, when the job was offered, a conversation with Heiar sealed the deal for him.
Platz was happy on the ICFD, and said he wasn’t really looking for a new job when the NLFD position appeared, but the more he looked into it, the more he realized it might be something he’d really like.
“I think you get to a point in your life where you ask yourself a couple of things, and one of those is, are you making the difference you hoped you’d make?” he said. “I knew I was contributing, but I don’t know I was making the difference I’d hoped to. Sometimes it’s good to take a risk. Sometimes you gotta take a leap of faith to realize something even better.”

The challenges of staffing, run times and location
The consultant’s report recommended the city strongly consider acquiring a site for, and eventually constructing, a second fire station– preferably on the west side of North Liberty, as well as the idea of increasing staffing– potentially including more career staff, forming a combination career-volunteer department.
One step of that process is compiling vast quantities of data to paint the most accurate picture possible of how the NLFD operates, as well as to guide decisions for the future.
“We’re looking at our data right now from the past year,” Platz said. “We’re looking at turnout time (time from initial alarm to leaving the station), overall response time (how long it took to reach the scene) and the types of calls (medical, vehicle accident, fire).”
In addition, the department recently put out a community survey of expectations. “We want people to let us know what they expect out of their fire department,” he said.
The department will take the results of the survey as well as the information gleaned from the data analysis and begin an internal strategic planning process in January with the goal of making improvements where needed with an eye toward future growth.
Staffing is an issue in just about every volunteer fire department across the country as the increasing demands on a volunteer’s time compete with job and family obligations. Much of Asst. Chief Schmooke’s efforts over the past few years has been to recruit more volunteers, and keep as many as possible who have already joined, in an effort to increase staffing and ensure somebody is always available to respond to any emergency.
Daytime staffing is especially tough as fewer and fewer volunteer firefighters work in town, or are in a position where they can leave work if their pager signals an alarm.
One option is service sharing, also known as “Auto-Aid,” whereby multiple fire departments are dispatched initially rather than the “first-in” district being dispatched and calling for help (“mutual aid”) either while enroute to the scene, or shortly after arrival. Both Auto-Aid and Mutual Aid provide additional manpower and equipment, but Auto-Aid gets it rolling sooner. Auto-Aid has been used around the region, in some cases (Prairieburg and Coggon in far northern Linn County) for decades, in other cases (Cedar County automatically dispatching two fire departments for any daytime structure fire) for several years.
In Johnson County, Iowa City, Coralville and West Branch have an Auto-Aid agreement for incidents on Interstate 80, and Chief Platz thought Hills and Lone Tree.
“I certainly think the timing is right for North Liberty to start having those conversations about relationships (with neighboring departments) and how we help each other,” he said.
Cox also recommended a second station.
“Although we’re packed pretty tight into this facility, it will serve us for a little while longer until we can hit that relief valve of another fire station,” Platz said.
The location of the current station, and the ever-increasing traffic through North Liberty has made responding to the station a growing challenge. “If they live out by the interstate, coming here can take 10 minutes. There are days where I might wait and wait and wait for somebody else to show up, just because it’s so hard to navigate the community.”
In Solon, he noted, he lives eight blocks from the station. “I can be there in about a minute. Once I’m across Highway 1, I’m golden.” In stark contrast, North Liberty firefighters can be stuck in traffic on Highway 965, seemingly inching their way to Cherry Street and the station.
Volunteer firefighters are able to acquire and use flashing blue lights when responding to emergencies. However, those lights only “request” the right of way from other motorists, who are under no legal obligation to move out of the way, unlike authorized emergency vehicles (fire trucks, police cars and ambulances).
The public expects two things of the fire service, Platz said. “They expect you to be at their front door a minute after they called you, so they want fast response. And they also want people that are trained to do the job, and take care of their problem. They want people that can come and make their day better. So if either or both of those are not where they should be, then we’re failing at our mission. It’s important to me to take care of the people that make up this organization, but the first part of why we’re all here is to provide that service in a very quick fashion.”

Making the transition from ICFD to NLFD
Platz said he’s facing a different kind of busy as the leader of the NLFD versus being the No. 2-man on the ICFD. “I’m not tied to this desk like I was there,” he said.
Platz along with two others made the NLFD’s initial response to a recent daytime house fire in rural North Liberty, fulfilling the expectation of the chief’s position responding to incidents.
“There’s a number of things I really, really like about this position. Number one, it’s tied to operations. I get to go out on calls…not all the time, if there’s other folks here, they go and I’ll stay back because I certainly have other things to do. But if they don’t, I’ll go.”
As for riding out in the first-due Engine to a structure fire, Platz said, “It’s been a long, long time since I’ve gotten to do that.”
And, he believes as Chief, he should be riding out on calls, “It’s the mission of the fire department to respond to calls, and I think I’d be doing the department a disservice if I just sat here and waited for someone else to show up and respond. So I think it’s important that I fulfill that role, and I’m happy to do that.”
He also sticks around in the evenings to attend training sessions and the department’s business meetings, or to finish the administrative duties that piled up while he was out on runs.
“I think it’s important for me to go to training,” he said. “It’s important for me to be at the general business meeting. It’s important for the chief to be visible, and I don’t want to be the chief that’s not that way. I’m not above rolling hose or washing a truck. A lot of times, they don’t let me, because they know I have other things to do, but I think making the offer and wanting to, goes a long way. It’s just the right thing to do.”
As much as he enjoys running on calls, the new chief also enjoys the opportunity for strategic planning, looking five, seven, 10 years down the road at what the department should look like. And trying to provide people with that vision. He also wants to be instrumental in setting up an attractive culture and environment.
Platz said he had great bosses in Iowa City and possesses a great boss in North Liberty, City Manager Heiar.
“Ryan treats me very well, he gives me a lot of freedom and flexibility. We meet often and I keep him informed of what we’re doing and where we’re going, and he either provides advice or says, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ so that’s been really good.”
The City’s administrative team and fellow department heads have also been very helpful to him, he said. “It’s like I’ve always been here. They made me feel so welcome. For me, going down to City Hall isn’t a chore. I rather enjoy that.”
He hopes once the data is compiled and the surveys assessed, a well-defined plan will emerge.
“Hopefully that’ll allow the city to start to formulate some sort of ability to fund the department in order to allow us the ability to grow in the fashion we believe we should.”

The new boss meets the troops
“Folks are dedicated here. They have a passion for doing this work, but they’re also being overworked. They’re getting burned out. When you have a full-time job, and a family, and other hobbies, and the fire department… you get to a point where something’s got to give. It’s hard to expect somebody to work a job all day, miss a meal with their family because the pager went off for three calls in a row between 5 and 7 p.m., and then have them go home and get up out of bed for two late night runs before going back to work again in the morning.”
But, that’s exactly what the 45 volunteers do.“At some point, you have to start making some hard decisions,” he said. That goes not only for the volunteers, but also the city, regarding who staffs the station and who goes on the runs in the future.
Platz said a proposal for hiring part-time firefighters to staff the station during peak times for responses could be a part of future planning. Such staff would supplement the volunteers and help ensure staffing for responses while hopefully cutting down on the response time. Cox’s recommendations included the possibility of adding more paid staff and making the department a combination agency.
The firefighters are responsible for all housekeeping in their station and perform detailed checks of each truck and each piece of equipment; all time-consuming tasks on top of attending required training sessions and business meetings, as well as responding to emergencies. Platz noted part-timers could take some of this burden off of the volunteers.
One of the first things Platz did after he was sworn in was to send an email to all members of the department with an invitation. “I invite you to come in and speak with me for an hour, individually, no script it’s completely organic.”
Platz said he would tell them a little bit about himself and wanted to learn more about them, their backgrounds, their families and why they’re on the department.
“I want to listen to you,” he told them.
Roughly half the department has taken advantage of the opportunity. “People came in and I just tried to listen. It was interesting the insight I got, not only from an organizational perspective but for individuals. I got to know people. One question I asked is, ‘what keeps you coming here? What do you like about this place?’
“I never asked them what’s wrong with this place, or what were some of the negatives. But, if they wanted to tell me, they had the opportunity.”
Surprisingly, nobody complained.
“I was ready,” Platz said, “I was ready to hear it.”
“Everybody prefaced what they said with, ‘I’m only telling you this because I want this place to be better.’ That was good for me to hear.”
Platz reiterated he had a great job with the ICFD, but emphasized, “I’m so glad I came here, I’ve got a great job now too. I walk away from here everyday thanking the Lord I made the decision (to apply for and accept the position). It’s because of the kind of work I get to do, and the kind of people I get to be around. We’ve got really good volunteers. The people are unbelievable. They’re passionate, they’re excited. We just need to shore up a few things. We’re not too far off, we just need to make a few adjustments.”
As the community continues to grow and the department continues to get busier and busier, Chief Platz will have plenty of opportunity to spend time with his people.
“We’re going to easily hit 1,200 calls this year,” he said, u
p from a historical 1,137 incidents in 2016.
“There were only three months that weren’t record-breaking months this year.”

The NLFD is on its way towards a comprehensive department strategic plan, and needs your input! Please take a short nine question survey, to help them better understand your expectations. www.surveymonkey.com/r/5NDPTLH