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  Iowa Lawmaker Wants to Reimburse Firefighters For Training





Jan. 24--WEST BURLINGTON -- Many volunteer firefighters pay for their training out of their own pocket, just so they can serve their community.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-2nd District, is hoping to return some of that money back. The congressman stopped by the West Burlington Fire Department Friday afternoon to discuss new legislation that would create a tax deduction for volunteer first responders, which includes firefighters.

"What I've heard, more often than not, is there's difficulty trying to get folks on board with the volunteer fire department," Loebsack said.

West Burlington Fire Chief Mike Heim agreed. He and fellow West Burlington fire personnel were joined by fire chiefs and firefighters from Yarmouth, Mediapolis and Wever, as well as City Councilwoman Kara Steward and West Burlington Mayor Hans Trousil.

"Our biggest problem is, when the economy opened up, everybody took jobs every place but this area," Heim said. "They went to the railroads, some of them are working in Fort Madison, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant. In the daytime, we are very short."

Loebsack said the bill, which is a joint effort between him and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., might provide enough of an incentive to lure a prospective volunteers into emergency services. The bill will provide deductions from taxable income up to $6,000 a year and for up to 300 hours of service.

"I don't know if it's going to get passed any time soon, but we have some good signs," Loebsack said. "But it will cost some money."

West Burlington volunteer firefighters are paid a stipend for every fire they cover, but it doesn't compete with a full-time job. The stipend is covered by a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, which requires the department add seven new firefighters every year. That grant also covers training and equipment costs for new firefighters.

Still, Heim wishes the department could offer more to prospective volunteers.

"People aren't going to leave a $15 an hour job to come here and make $7.80 an hour. It's not just good economics," he said.

Last year, the department responded to 517 calls, including 23 structure fires. Heim said between 14 and 20 firefighters answer each fire call. Heim said the number of calls has climbed every year he's been with the West Burlington department. If it's not strictly police rated, most calls go through the fire department.

"You name it, we're the ones people call," Heim said.

Smaller fire departments, such as the ones in Yarmouth and Wever, don't have the resources to give their firefighters a stipend. Wever Fire Chief J.D. Henshaw said the number of calls has increased significantly since construction started on the Iowa Fertilizer Co. plant, nearly doubling from 63 calls in 2013 to 115 calls in 2014. Many of Fort Madison's firefighters cut their teeth in Wever, which is why it's vital to keep bringing in volunteers.

"We're trying to get younger guys, because we're getting older," said Capt. Larry Fraise of the Wever force.

West Burlington firefighter Cale Heitmeier is still in his early 20s, and said the incentive to be a firefighter doesn't start with a paycheck. While he's grateful for the potential tax deduction, he said anyone who tries the job without a passion for it doesn't stick around for. His fellow firefighters agreed.

"I know for me, when I got on (the fire department), I didn't have the intention to get paid. I wanted to do my city justice and help those who have paid their dues," Heitmeier said.

Loebsack said he will continue to press for firefighter grants.

"I can't even imagine what you guys go through. I just want to thank you for what you do," he said.

After spending about an hour at the West Burlington Fire Department, Loebsack visited the Montrose Fire Department to talk to firefighters there.

Copyright 2015 - The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa

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