• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

It’s all about the mission

NLFD initiates overnight shifts with part-time firefighters
Lt. James McDonald watches firefighter Alex Place run the pump on NL116 (the department’s brushfire truck, which has become a “quick attack”) at the start of their 12-hour shift with the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) Wednesday, April 3. The paid-per-call department hired eight of its existing members to transition into part-time paid positions to operate out of the fire station overnight, shortening response times and providing better service to the community. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY- In 1986, actor Tom Cruise, portraying a Navy fighter pilot in the movie “Top Gun,” declared “I feel the need, the need for speed!” While Cruise’s line became a popular catch phrase, firefighters have historically felt the need for speed, with good reason.
Fire increases in size at an astonishing rate. A person not breathing, or in full cardiac arrest, will die within minutes if care is not provided quickly. Severe blood loss can quickly result in shock. These, and hundreds of other examples, are why firefighters strive to get out of the station and to the emergency scene as quickly as possible. Short response times are often a challenge, however.
In North Liberty, response times have gotten longer and longer due to a variety of factors, including the continual expansion of the city, additional traffic lights, availability of personnel, and firefighters living farther and farther away from the station.
“Its very difficult to get volunteers, whether its three o’clock in the afternoon or two in the morning, back to this fire station because the city has grown so much,” North Liberty Fire Chief Brian Platz said. “We have so many traffic control lights, that we’re not allowed to run (in their private vehicles. Some firefighters may display a blue flashing light, but it only requests other drivers to yield right-of-way, and is not the same as the lights on an authorized emergency vehicle), for good reason. As I looked at the data, the 90th percentile of our emergent calls in 2018 had a turnout time over nine minutes, to get a truck out the door.”
The average was a little over four minutes, Platz said, but, “in the fire service, we look at the 90th percentile. If it’s my house on fire, I don’t want it to be close to nine minutes.”
Looking at the 90th percentile, overall run time, from dispatch to arriving on-scene, was just under 15 minutes.
“That’s a long time,” Platz said. “As we delved into this more we realized that, obviously, travel time is fairly difficult to improve. A fire truck only (safely) goes so fast, corners are corners, your fire station is where it’s at.”
While a second station isn’t out of the question at some point in the future, it’s not an immediate solution to the equation of time versus distance.
“The big, impactful area that we saw where we could influence was turnout time,” Platz said. To cut down the time it takes to get out the door, firefighters need to be in the station before the alarm tone sounds on their pagers.
One initiative instituted in recent years has been an on-call program where each member is required to sign up for three overnight shifts per month. They do not have to stay at the station, although sleeping accommodations have been provided, but do have to be available to respond to the station for alarms. Many firefighters have bunked-in at the station, but often still have had to wait for others to arrive before getting a truck on the way.
The next step in reducing response times, and getting a truck on the road quickly, led to a new era for the fire department, which was founded in 1945.
“We took eight paid-per-call members and reclassified them to part-time,” Platz said. The eight work 12-hour shifts, in pairs, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday night through Saturday morning. The selection process began last summer with an open call to all members of the department. Candidates for a part-time position have to possess at least a high school diploma, Firefighter 1 certification, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification (some have higher certification levels, such as Paramedic), and a valid Iowa driver’s license.
An aptitude test and physical agility test followed. “We’ve never done that before with any of our personnel,” Chief Platz said, “but we decided going forward, that’s going to be something we should be doing, and we felt this was a good time to start.”
All new recruits will undergo the assessment process. The chief noted there have been candidates in the past that had the interest and desire, but were unable to perform the tasks required of a firefighter. Requiring the testing, the Chief said, “protects our investment in them.”
The transition to what is known as a “combination department” (a mix of career and volunteer personnel) was suggested in a consultant’s report to the city in 2017. A number of in-house meetings were held in an attempt to determine what a part-time program, and being a combination department, would look like.
“None of us have walked this path before,” Platz said. A former volunteer for the Solon fire department, he left a position as deputy chief for the Iowa City Fire Department to become North Liberty’s first fulltime career fire chief. Other officers and firefighters in North Liberty work as fulltime career firefighters for Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, which have no volunteers, part time or paid per call staff. “We really didn’t know what it takes to go from a volunteer to a combination fire department.”
They looked to other departments around the state that have made the transition, including Hiawatha, Johnston and Waukee. “But every department is just a little different,” he said. Marion, for example, has fulltime career firefighters staffing two stations, with back-up provided by a corps of paid-per-call firefighters. “We took what we cold from those folks, and they gave us unbelievable advice, but at the same time, we had to figure our way out.”
What, if anything, would the part-time crew have for duties when not responding to emergencies? What would be the time frame for implementing a part-time program? The pay rate?
Maintaining a cohesive fire department was also key in his mind, as well as that of his assistant chiefs. A part-time lieutenant, for example, carries the same rank as a paid-per-call lieutenant. “We don’t want division, we don’t want segregation, we don’t want the part-timers versus the paid-per-calls. That is paramount in all of our discussions,” the chief said.
The only difference between the eight part-time firefighters and their paid-per-call counterparts is a paycheck and a limit on the number of hours they can work. The part-time crew can only respond to calls during their assigned shift, or if they are recalled for a major incident.
The eight underwent an additional battery of scenario-based testing, including a cardiac arrest, pump operation, and hose deployment for an active structure fire. “They performed very, very well,” Platz said. “We’re really going to be looking to them as those ambassadors for the fire department during those hours. They’re going to be setting the tone for any emergency incident.”
For an emergency medical response, the two firefighters on duty will respond in the department’s brush truck, which has been stocked with medical equipment and supplies. For a structure fire, they’ll take the department’s first-out pumper, and if an on-call member isn’t in the station with them, they will wait until they at least have a third firefighter onboard. As additional firefighters arrive at the station, they would then staff and respond in the ladder truck or pumper-tanker, as appropriate for the call.
Most alarms are received during the day, but on a typical weekday, Chief Platz and one or two of the part-time paid assistant chiefs are in the station, along with other assorted personnel, which makes a quick response possible.
In addition to preparing the part-time crew, work was also done to retrofit the station. A makeshift “bunkroom” had been created out of office cubicles in the workout room, but it was determined from the start to be a temporary solution for firefighters staying overnight.
A subsequent remodeling project resulted in four private sleeping rooms, a relocated dayroom, and a new bathroom with shower facilities.
The firefighters did much of the demolition work themselves while the Home Repair Team handled the remodeling. Firefighters then went back in to finish the project.
The first shift started on Wednesday, April 3, with Lt. James McDonald and firefighter-paramedic Alex Place on duty. The men checked out their truck, inside and out, and placed their turnout gear by the vehicle for quick donning. A typical shift includes a truck check, station duties like housekeeping and janitorial duties, time for training and paperwork. After that is downtime, where the firefighters can relax, maybe even sleep, but must remain ready to respond in an instant.
McDonald has been a member of the North Liberty Fire Department for almost five years and is the officer among the part-time firefighters. He works full-time for Johnson County as a medical examiner investigator, and has a wife and eight-year-old son.
“I was looking for a change,” McDonald said. “I’d never done something that was structured like this, as far as firefighting, I’ve been a volunteer for a very long time and this was a step closer to a fulltime firefighting environment.” He’s looking forward to the experience of being at the station ready to respond.
When the inevitable call comes in, “You’ve got your gear right next to the truck and off you go,” he said.
One change from his time as a paid-per-call firefighter to being part-time is the realization of only being able to respond when on-shift. “I was here (at the station) a few days ago and a call came out,” McDonald explained. “I went to go get my bunker gear and then it hit me. No, I can’t do this. I had to stop and watch the truck leave the bay. It was an interesting experience.”
McDonald said he can see the day when the department has fulltime firefighters around the clock. “The town has just grown so much, the demand has increased by a large percentage every single year since I’ve been here, and it’s not stopping anytime soon.”
A large part of that demand has been an increase in medical responses.
However, due to the long turnout times, the Johnson County Ambulance Service often arrives on-scene before the fire department is enroute. Also, many times, the ambulance on-scene will cancel the fire department response. The department’s new staffing plan, McDonald said, should reverse those trends.
“We will be first on the scene the vast majority of the time, which has not always been the case for us,” he said. “We will have to get used to being first on the scene for a while before they arrive, so we’ll really have to tighten up our medical game.”
Even with the part-timers, McDonald said the department will continue to seek new paid-per-call firefighters, and was starting a recruit class for eight new members. “We’re not gonna stop recruiting anytime soon, because people do leave this,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and things come up, family obligations change, so we lose people, unfortunately.”
His wife and son have embraced the change, McDonald said. “This might actually mean less time at the station for me under this model, and I’ll tell you, my wife is pretty excited about not having a pager going off at all hours of the night. I’ll still be getting woken up by the pager tonight, but she’ll enjoy being able to sleep.”
McDonald is optimistic and encouraged by the prospect of shorter turnout times and providing quicker service to the community. “I can’t express enough how big a change this is for the department and how excited I am for being able to get trucks out of the bay that much faster,” McDonald said.
He and his fellow part-timers will be monitored closely at first, especially for turnout times. “He’s (Chief Platz) going to be expecting results, and I don’t think it’s going to be hard to give him those results,” McDonald said. “The eight of us are going to be able to reduce that response time tremendously just by physically being here at the station.”
Chief Platz summed up his goals for the new program, saying “I’m hopeful that the data will show us that turnout times are greatly reduced, and we’re able to make more of an impact in the community. This is trying to get to their doorstep quicker. If we can shave five minutes off of our overall response time, that’s significant. If you can stop a fire in the room of origin versus burn the roof off, that’s significant. If you can increase your cardiac arrest save rate, that’s significant. It’s all about the mission.”
There’s another benefit to having firefighters in the station overnight, the chief said with a smile.
“When I come in in the morning, there’s always a fresh, hot pot of coffee waiting for me.”