This is an article from the local paper here about a fire department that is currently career but is being faced with being cut to a volunteer or combination department.
Recently they bashed the local EMS service and have their sights set on getting the county ambulance contract. I work part-time for that ambulance service, but before you assume I am anti-fire department, let me state that I totally respect these guys wanting to save their jobs, but their chief is who is ultimately going to screw them.
Fort Madison Fire Chief reminds residents "You get what you pay for"
Robin Delaney/Managing Editor
A Daily Democrat survey of several Iowa communities about the same size as Fort Madison and Keokuk shows that Lee County's two main municipalities are two of the few having a professional fire department. As a result, Fort Madison and Keokuk taxpayers are paying more for fire protection than those in Oskaloosa, Fairfield, Coralville, Pella, and Storm Lake.
The difference, it seems, is that the other five Iowa communities use paid and unpaid volunteer firefighters to supplement one to three full-time paid professionals.
For example, Oskaloosa, with a population of 10,938, has a 2005-06 departmental budget of $582,000, pays eight full-time professionals, and uses 20 paid volunteers trained at various levels. Fairfield, with its 9,509 residents, has three full-time professionals, 15 paid reserves, and an annual budget of $255,565; Coralville, much larger with 17,269 residents, employs two professionals and 41 unpaid volunteers, with a total budget of about $495,000.
In comparison, Fort Madison employs 18 full-time professionals, has no volunteer or reserve firefighter program, and has a 2005-06 budget over $1.3 million. Keokuk, like Fort Madison, is without volunteers or reserves, employs 19 professionals, and has budgeted about $1.2 million for the 2005-06 fiscal year.
But what dollar amount can one place on a human life?
Fort Madison Fire Chief Mike Walker says that no monetary values can be determined, but that public safety and its costs come down to how much risk residents are willing to take, and how long they are willing to wait for help to arrive.
"You get what you pay for"
While volunteer fire departments in Lee County's smaller communities of West Point, Denmark, Donnellson, Montrose, and Wever are regularly credited with their performance at emergencies, particularly those at the scene of serious accidents, Fort Madison Fire Chief Mike Walker contends that these squads would still lack the numbers and training required to play a leading or primary role in structure fires and potentially hazardous situations at local industries.
"They are heroes. There's no doubt about that. Anyone who puts their life on the line and gets nothing in return, or even if they do get something - they are heroes in my book," Walker said. "But I don't have enough people now to be safe, and all of my guys have more training."
Walker said the Iowa Association of Professional Fire Chiefs (IAPFC) is considering minimum training standards for Iowa fire services, but that the measure "is not expected to pass, because many volunteers feel it is too strict." Walker said the measure, if approved, would require all professionals and volunteer firefighters (paid and unpaid) to train to a Firefighter Level 1, which would require about 20 hours each year. The proposed measure does not require all volunteers be certified at this level.
"Think of it, volunteer firefighters not able to go into your house to rescue you!" Walker stated in a recent e-mail attached to the IAPFC proposal. "We (in Fort Madison's fire department) are all certified at Firefighter 2, with Lieutenants required to be at Fire Officer 1, Instructor 1 and Captains at Fire Officer 2, Instructor 2. Quite a disparity in qualifications, don't you think? You get what you pay for."
And further, Walker says human life, or its potential loss, is not something that can be quantified in terms of dollars and cents.
"My job is public safety and property conservation. Sometimes I have to sacrifice property to protect or save a human life. But protecting and saving lives - whether it is by teaching CPR to parents who end up saving their child or pulling somebody out of debris from an automobile, is what I do."
Walker: FMFD lacks adequate
manpower the way it is
The Fort Madison Fire Department consists of 18 full-time paid professionals, trained at varying levels between Firefighter 2 and that of Fire Chief, with several having EMT and paramedic training.
But because one, sometimes two, of these professionals will be absent at given times due to vacation, sick leave, and family emergencies, Walker says the department's three shifts are often short-handed. Ideally, Walker says, 11 men are needed to adequately handle a structure fire in accordance with professional guidelines. Structure fires, according to Walker, require two firefighters on the exterior of the building, two to go inside to control the fire, two to man the hydrant and water supply, two to handle ventilation, one to be in command, one engineer, and two to handle "search and rescue."
"That's what happened in Keokuk years ago that killed three kids and three firefighters. They didn't have anyone on the outside," Walker said. "If I send two guys in to look for victims, I have to have two fighting the fire and two outside."
At present, Walker said the FMFD operates three shifts, with five on one shift and six on the other two, at least whenever possible.
"Even with that number, if we have a large structure fire like we did earlier this month with the warehouse fire, followed by a barn fire hours later, we have to call West Point and other departments in," Walker said.
Would we save money by
eliminating medical calls?
While Storm Lake, Oskaloosa, Fairfield, and Coralville do not respond to routine medical calls, yet have departmental budgets less than half the amount of Fort Madison's or Keokuk's professional fire departments, Walker said eliminating medical calls would not be a savings to Keokuk and Fort Madison taxpayers.
"That's a misconception that cutting medical calls would reduce our budget. It wouldn't make any difference at all. My guys would still be there, on duty, in case of a fire and they are getting paid. Going out on medical calls doesn't cost more. Costs would stay the same," Walker explained. "And again, it comes down to public safety. That's our job ; we're professionals at it. It doesn't matter how that life is saved."
Professional fire departments tend to have better response times too, Walker said, because they are on duty and ready to respond, unlike the volunteers who may be elsewhere at their full-time jobs or pursuing another activity.
"We used to call them 'counter-jumpers,' because years ago, all fire departments used volunteers. They would close their stores or businesses when an alarm sounded, jump over their store counters, and go to the fire. It doesn't work like that anymore. Most people don't have those kind of jobs or are able to do that."
Walker said Coralville is an exceptional example of a large volunteer department having several volunteers available, many times at the fire station, all times of the day or night.
"Coralville's chief has told me he has seven or eight volunteer guys that work shifts and hang around the fire station, so many times they're right there when a call comes in. That's isn't likely here, and it isn't the case in other volunteer departments," Walker said. "On average, one out of three volunteers will respond, so you have to have a lot of people to get a few at the scene."
And whether it is a car accident involving injuries, a fire, or a medical call, time matters, Walker says. After a 9-1-1 call, a person who is having trouble breathing, whether it is from a heart attack or because they are trapped in a smoke-filled building, has about four to six minutes before suffering brain damage or dying.
"Four to six minutes sounds like a lot of time, but I have beginning firefighters do an exercise to show them just how long it is. They put a straw in their mouth, pinch their nose, and breathe out the straw. They soon become dizzy because of the buildup of carbon dioxide. Then I ask them if they want to breathe like that for a couple more minutes until help arrives," Walker said.
Budget cuts and
Walker says City Manager Bill Kelly has mentioned the possibility of mandated staff furloughs in city departments, including the fire department, if state funding continues to decrease and heath insurance premiums continue to escalate.
"Then what do I do? I mean, we'll do what we have to do, but I don't have enough people now - then you put a guy on furlough and no matter what, I can't call him in," Walker said.
In February, Kelly told the Daily Democrat that health insurance premiums have increased 111 percent between the 2001 fiscal year and the upcoming 2005 fiscal year, which begins July 1. In the last five years, actual health costs have doubled, utility rates have increased 50 percent, and fuel costs are up more than 30 percent.
And during this same interview, Kelly predicted the city's 2006-07 fiscal budget would need to involve drastic cuts to avoid using the remaining balance of the city's reserve fund. Many of these cuts, Kelly predicted, may need to be in the city's General Fund, which will likely involve laying off some city employees.
The city departments included in the General Fund are fire, police, parks and recreation, planning and zoning, public libraries and administration. Kelly said 93 percent of the General Fund expenditures consists of salaries and benefits for these departments, with 65 percent being police and fire departments. The remaining 7 percent of the General Fund consists of equipment and supply purchases.
FM's former city manager says paid volunteer
Fort Madison's former city manager, John Call, who has been the city manager of Storm Lake the last three years, says he regularly sees how a paid volunteer firefighters program can work.
Storm Lake, with a population of 10,084 (616 fewer residents than Fort Madison) has one full-time fire chief, one full-time firefighter, and 28 paid volunteers (or reserves, as they are called in some other cities.)
"During the day we have two on duty - the chief and one full-time firefighter, and at night, two volunteers, on a rotating basis, stay overnight at the fire house," Call said. "We try to keep the fire house manned with at least two people at all times.
And when Storm Lake's volunteers are paged, the majority respond, Call said, adding that the department responds to an average of 120 fire calls each year (excluding responses to accident scenes to assist with extricating people from vehicles) over approximately 93 square miles, which includes the City of Storm Lake and its outlying areas.
"We have good responses, probably about 18 to 20 at most fires and calls."
Like the fire departments in Oskaloosa, Fairfield, and Coralville, Storm Lake firefighters do not respond to basic medical calls. Call said the hospital in Storm Lake operates the city's ambulance service and firefighters respond only when called in reference to an accident involving personal injury and needing special equipment.
Call was Fort Madison's city manager for five years, and arrived in 1995, shortly after the Fort Madison City Council, faced with having to make about $200,000 in budget cuts to the city's 1995-96 fiscal budget, attempted to implement a volunteer firefighters program to supplement its department of paid professionals.
Could a volunteer
program work here?
But, as Call recalls, few Fort Madison residents stepped forward for the required training, and the concept was never implemented. But could a volunteer firefighter program work in Fort Madison today?
Although seeming a bit hesitant when answering, Call said such a program could work, with enough cooperation from city officials and, most of all, from the city's paid professional firefighters.
"Eventually it could (work), but you have to have dedication from the city council that will insist that it work and be implemented, and you have to have the support and cooperation of the professional firefighters. They can't look at the volunteers as people trying to take over their jobs. They have to look at them as people who are trained to help them do their jobs."
Their share of critics
And some of the volunteer programs have not operated without their share of complaints. Most recently, the Coralville volunteer firefighters program has been the focus of such scrutiny. An article in The Daily Iowan as recent as April 12 of this year quotes residents being critical of the volunteers.
For example, Simone Grace, who resides across the street from the Coralville fire station, was quoted as saying that on at least two occasions in recent months she has observed Coralville fire trucks pull out of the fire station heading one direction, only to do an about-face as they attempted to locate the site of their call.
"I understand budget problems and the state of the economy, but it's frightening to know our safety is at the mercy of the fire department," Grace told Daily Iowan reporter Choyon Manjrekar.
But Coralville Fire Chief Dave Stannard is also quoted in the article saying that these observations are rare, and that the city's 2004 property loss of about $300,000 reflects the professionalism of the department. However, Stannard also told the reporter that he believes Coralville and its outlying areas are expanding with residents and industry beyond what a volunteer program can handle.
But Stannard and other Coralville officials acknowledged in the newspaper article that budget restraints will likely prevent, or at least postpone, increasing the number of paid professionals in the fire department. Stannard said a professional fire department in Coralville would likely "come with a $2 million price tag" rather than its current $495,000 annual budget and require several more people, full-time and volunteer alike.
Now what do you think?
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Thread: Career vs Volunteer/Combination
05-12-2005, 11:41 PM #1
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- Dec 2004
- Southeast Iowa
Career vs Volunteer/Combination
05-12-2005, 11:46 PM #2
- Join Date
- Dec 2004
- Southeast Iowa
More Food For Thought
Here is a letter posted in the same paper by a volunteer firefighter from the same county:
Trained volunteer firefighters are just as professional
I just finished reading the Democrat's story, and I must say I am confused.
I have been a volunteer firefighter for 19 years with the Montrose Fire Association.
I was an E.M.T. for 15 years, and a Paramedic for 10 years. I have two sons, which I am very proud to say are also volunteer firefighters and E.M.T.s with the same fire department.
All of these years, I have thought of myself and all of the people who presently serve, and who have served in the past as professionals. Now, I find out that because we do not receive any pay for what we do, we are not. The part that confuses me is that I know several firefighters who are volunteers and also work for a paid fire department.
It seems that when these firemen punch in at the paid departments they instantly turn into professional firefighters. When their shift is over and they return home and are then serving as volunteers, they instantly change back into a Counter-Jumper, and are no longer considered professionals. I guess now that I find I am not professional, I just don't have the capacity to understand this logic.
Chief Walker states "you get what you pay for." It seems, then, that because we are not being paid, the citizens of our fire district have received nothing, zero, zip, nada, for all of these years of service from the Montrose Fire Association members. I would hope that the people we have served would not agree with Chief Walker.
The one part of this that Chief Walker and I agree on is that there never seems to be enough money to do all that needs to be done.
When these unprofessional fire departments need extra money they have fundraisers, such as pancake breakfasts, firemen's balls, and fish fries, which our citizens seem to enjoy to help raise money for the extra things the department needs. Just crying about no money never seemed to work for us unprofessionals.
Next, Chief Walker states that it costs nothing to run medical calls. What planet is he from? As Chairman of the Lee County Emergency Management Commission, I know that Chief Walker has applied for thousands upon thousands of dollars for medical equipment, which is taxpayer money. A monitor/defibrillator alone can cost from 10 to 20 thousand dollars, then to add all of the other equipment needed to be certified to run medical calls, plus the cost of malpractice insurance??? If "going on medical calls doesn't cost more," then he knows something no other health care provider in Lee County knows.
It is getting harder and harder to find people who are willing to volunteer their time to help serve and protect our communities. Part of the problem may be our busy lifestyles, part may be government regulations, which mandate many hours of training, and part may be attitudes like that of Chief Walker. His statement that "these squads lack the numbers and training to play a leading or primary role in structure fires" surely will not make it any easier to interest anyone in being a volunteer.
In closing, I would like to say how proud I am to be a small part in such a great group of volunteers. These men and women have and will always have my greatest respect.
P.S. : The next time you hear Chief Walker say "call ??? fire department to cover MY station" on mutual aid, ask yourself how a bunch of ragtag "counter-jumping" understaffed and undertrained nonprofessionals will be able to accomplish such a task?
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