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More consolidation may be the answer to a lack of volunteer firefighters in rural Iowa


Gage Miskimen   | Des Moines Register

Two decades ago, a machine shed fire in rural Plymouth County might have taken one, maybe two, fire departments to put out the flames.

But in 2019, it took five just to get enough manpower and water to put out the fire. No single department had enough available volunteers or resources.

"The days where the butcher, the baker, and the horseshoe maker ran down the street when the fire whistle blew in town, that doesn't happen anymore," Le Mars Fire Chief David Schipper said.

Instead, fire departments unable to fill part-time slots from within their own areas are partnering with neighboring communities. The approach, similar to that used in rural school districts, widens the pool of available volunteers who can respond to emergency calls.

Indeed, consolidation may be the future of firefighting in Iowa. Many departments are sharing spaces, equipment and even fire chiefs. Some have simply combined departments as a whole.

Schipper, a fourth-generation firefighter whose son is the fifth, is also the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association president. He's been chief in Le Mars for 11 years.

"I think the rural areas are struggling even more because people aren't moving into smaller communities anymore," Schipper said. 

Iowa has about 850 fire departments statewide, according to the Department of Public Safety. Of those, 92% are volunteer departments, much higher than the national average of 70%, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

And of Iowa's 16,100 firefighters, 14,500 are volunteers, according to DPS. 

Historically, Iowa's firefighting force is largely volunteer, said John TeKippe, Des Moines fire chief and president of the Iowa Association of Professional Fire Chiefs. But a lot of firefighters are looking to become full-time members in larger communities that can afford them.

"As urban areas have gone from volunteer to full time, we're consuming the candidate pool that already knows about the fire service and already speaks the language," TeKippe said. "We're competing with each other, which is really tough. Des Moines is in a different spot as larger departments tend to get more applicants."

The Des Moines Fire Department has 299 firefighters among 10 fire stations, TeKippe said. 

In some Iowa communities, recruitment and retention are hurdles to providing public safety services. Schipper said many fire departments have a hard time finding qualified volunteers to join their local teams.

"You have some departments that actually have a good group of volunteers," Schipper said. "Then you have some others who are really struggling to find the people."

Along with requiring a lot of time, being a volunteer firefighter can cost thousands of dollars, and many departments can't pay for it. In Iowa, it isn't uncommon for firefighters or EMTs, adding to their training and gear.

"To train a new firefighter can cost up to $2,000 or more, and to equip them with turnout gear, pager, etc., can be another $3,000 or more," Schipper said. 

Training can be done through the Fire Service Training Bureau, he said, and funding for such things as Firefighter I certification classes may be available from money set aside by the Iowa Legislature. 

"It's not just showing up for a meeting every now and then," he said. "You actually have continuing education hours you have to do and licenses you have to obtain and maintain. The hours that go along with those are increasing all the time. … A lot of the departments don't have the budget to pay for people to go through the training."

Urbandale Fire Chief Jerry Holt has been in his role for 22 years. He was the first full-time hire when he came to the department in 1998.

"In the volunteer ranks, retention is such an issue," Holt said. "When we were growing, volunteers were given 52 hours a month, and most people don't have 52 hours a month to give. We hear, 'Oh, I'd love to do it, but I don't have time for all this training and time to go to all the calls.'"

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Today, Urbandale's fire department employs 52 full-time and eight part-time staff. A couple of the team's part-time staffers work full time at other departments.

In 2009, as Urbandale was growing, City Manager AJ Johnson arrived from Muscatine, a city with a career fire department. Holt said Johnson and the city council at the time agreed to take the fire department from paid, on-call firefighters to adding full-time firefighters.

"We're in really good shape right now," Holt said. "Better than we've ever been."

Urbandale has a third fire station opening in January that will be able to provide more coverage in areas of Clive. Clive will pay a portion of the salaries at the new station, but it will have no ownership of the station or equipment. Firefighters and staff at the new location will be 100% Urbandale employees, Holt said. 

"We both needed coverage in that area and got together and put the station in the best location to serve both communities well," he said. 

More and more departments have mutual aid where a department can be requested to respond to another's calls to supply more firefighters or equipment to a scene. Plymouth County has a countywide mutual aid agreement, Schipper said.

Some are standardizing training and practices. 

Holt said departments in the Des Moines metro area met two years ago to create the Central Iowa Fire and EMS Testing Consortium with DMACC. The departments have standardized an exam for all the departments involved.

Eventually, that consortium will include Urbandale, Johnston-Grimes, Ankeny, Altoona, Windsor Heights, Indianola and Newton. 

"From a recruitment standpoint, it's great because now applicants can take one test and it's good for any department that's a part of this," said Johnston-Grimes Metropolitan Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Gentosi.

Johnston and Grimes consolidated the cities' two fire departments in 2016 after almost two decades of working together, Johnston-Grimes Fire Chief Jim Clark said. 

"It's a huge cost savings," Clark said. "Neither community would be able to provide the same level of service without this."

In 2000, the two cities started automatic aid, responding to each other's calls, Gentosi said. The next year they participated in joint training, and in 2004, Johnston hired a full-time fire chief.

Johnston and Grimes later decided to share the chief.

Though both are controlled by their own city councils, the two departments became one in 2016. 

"It just seemed to make more sense to consolidate the resources," Gentosi said. "We still have two payrolls and two budgets, but you would never be able to walk into a station and tell who is employed by who."

Consolidating doesn't solve all problems. At Johnston-Grimes, the department currently has about 56 hours a week, on average, when they're not at full strength. The department has 29 full-time firefighters/EMTs and 24 part-time firefighters, whose work can vary from a couple of hours a week to around 20 hours.

"Our struggle is to get enough people to cover all of our open hours," Clark said. "We still have two full-time shifts being filled by a couple of part-time people. … It's always a balancing act. We have multiple people who work part-time at multiple departments."

Clark said he thinks school districts have provided a road map for what the future of firefighting could look like in Iowa, with multiple communities covered by consolidated, multi-town fire departments.

Arnolds Park-Okoboji is another fire department in northwest Iowa that has seen the benefits of consolidation, including a larger pool of potential volunteers.

"We are one of the luckiest in Iowa," Fire Chief Chris Yungbluth said. 

Yungbluth said both cities were paying for general liability insurance, so it saved money to form a single entity.

"I do think it's helped both towns," Yungbluth said. "We have a bigger base of people we can pull from. We are still little Iowa towns when tourists aren't in the area. Now, with the combined two, it's a little easier to pull volunteers and have a better response in the daytime."

The department is different from Johnston-Grimes in that Arnolds Park-Okoboji firefighters are all volunteers, aside from a part-time worker who performs maintenance on firetrucks, and the fire chief, who receives a stipend.

Yungbluth has been in fire service for 24 years, starting when he was 18 years old in his hometown of Royal, where his father is still a volunteer firefighter.

The department currently has 29 members and is well-funded by the communities that see a lot of tourism in the summer, Yungbluth said. 

Arnolds Park-Okoboji became one department in 2000. The two towns already were sharing EMS services.

TeKippe, the Des Moines fire chief, said he knows everyone is struggling to find people to recruit and retain.

"I think the plea from all the fire chiefs is, if someone thinks they might be interested, they should reach out to their local department," TeKippe said. "I am certain that every chief will be more than willing to have the conversation of what the job entails and how to prepare for the work."

He said when other fire departments are hiring, he likes to bring attention to it to try and help fill the roles.

"People ask why, and I say, 'We all need to help each other,'" TeKippe said. "We grow our network and then we get better. That wasn't the case a decade ago, working together in these ways."