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A three-part series
Then Probationary Firefighter Darrek Elwood holds a ladder while Firefighter Travis Foster ascends to the roof of the North Liberty Fire Station Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011, during “Medal Day;” a day of training and competition for North Liberty’s volunteer firefighters. Neither man is currently on the department’s roster. (North Liberty Leader file photo by Chris Umscheid)

Consultant looks at the NLFD with an eye toward the future

NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) was formally organized in 1945 when the city was small and well separated from its neighboring towns. Now, the department, which covers North Liberty as well as Penn and Madison townships (56 square miles total), protects the lives and property of over 22,000 inhabitants.
“We’re at a point now where it makes sense to have that full time chief,” said City Administrator Ryan Heiar. That’s largely why the City of North Liberty recently commissioned a study of the fire department and it’s operations.
The 38-member department’s mission has grown from just putting out fires to responding to emergency medical services (EMS) calls, public education, fire inspections, hazardous materials (HAZMAT) emergencies, vehicle accidents, rescue incidents and even monitoring for the approach of severe weather. The NLFD responded to a record number of calls in 2016, hitting 1,137 for the first time. The department has been, and continues to be, the busiest volunteer fire department in Johnson County, according to call volume.
It was after the North Liberty City Council discussed the possibility of sharing services and/or working more closely with surrounding fire departments that it was ultimately decided to go ahead with hiring a consultant, Heiar said, with improved efficiency as an end goal.
“We sought to evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and if we could be doing anything different or better,” Heiar said.
Donald Cox, a consultant in emergency services and retired West Des Moines fire chief, was hired to conduct the study presented to the city council at their March 14 regular meeting. The $4,500 agreement was originally approved by council members at their meeting Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2016.
His study took place over a three-month period and looked at fire department statistics, as well as compared benchmarks– such as response times and staffing– between the NLFD and standards recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Cox also conducted three separate surveys with elected officials, the department’s officers and the firefighters. Meetings were also held with city and county officials including the Johnson County Ambulance Service, the Joint Emergency Communications Center and neighboring fire departments.
“I took away that we’re doing a lot of things right,” Heiar said of the report. “We have a great department and we provide a great service, and there are opportunities to improve that to be more efficient, or at least to evaluate.”
From data obtained and analyzed, in combination with results of the surveys, interviews and meetings, Cox came up with a number of recommendations for the future direction of the department, ranging from organizational to operational. His recommendations span short-term, mid-range and long-term timeframes.
Interim Fire Chief Bill Schmooke said he was pleased with Cox and the results of the report.
“He’s not only a consultant, but he’s a consultant who’s actually done it,” said Schmooke, referring to when Cox oversaw the transition of the West Des Moines Fire Department to a combination of 49 career and 30 part-time members responding out of four fire stations. “It was nice to be able to pick his brain and talk with him about our transition. He’s willing to stay engaged as much as we want him to.
“I think it was money well-spent,” he added.
And, more will be spent soon to move forward with Cox’s suggestions and hire a new full-time fire chief.
At its May 23 meeting, the North Liberty City Council approved a $16,000 contract with Moulder and Associates for the search, interview and assessment process.
“We’d like to move forward with the search, and we think it’s proven to bring in a professional to help us with that search,” said Heiar.
He pointed to the city’s previous partnership with Moulder and Associates when hiring a police chief.
“I think it actually worked out pretty slick for us last time. I’m confident with them,” said council member Brian Wayson. “When they did it last time, there was a huge applicant stack, and they narrowed it down. It was helpful to see people who didn’t make the final cut, to see what people were looking for.”
Schmooke, who has went through an assessment center in the past, said the alternative interview process measures different dimensions related to the role, from leadership to administrative skills, to technical stuff.
“It’s a pretty high-stakes, stressful type of day,” he said. “It does a good job of weeding out candidates who are good at the interview process but lack competency on the fire ground or in the firehouse.”
And, North Liberty needs the most-experienced fire chief Moulder and Associates can find to handle growth and retainment.
The department’s call volume continues to increase each year, up 94 percent since 2006 per the department’s 2016 annual report, and recruiting new firefighters is an ever-increasing challenge.
“This study outlines numerous concepts and ideas that all need to be evaluated over time,” Heiar said. “Some of which may not happen for a very long time, or ever. It will be up to the department, under the direction of the chief, to evaluate these concepts and make recommendations and/or develop a plan.”
Heiar added, “Plans are fluid, meaning that they can change as the variables of the department and city change.”

Understaffed, the North Liberty Fire Department continues to excel as far as service goes. However, Cox’s report pointed to the obvious need for a full-time fire chief– an idea the department and city have talked about in the past.
“The current part-time assignment simply has outgrown position demands,” Cox wrote in his report. “The surveys and interviews consistently reinforced the desire and need for the fire cihef to be full-time. Historically, a full-time position was contemplated over 10 years ago.”
The 38 members currently on the NLFD roster include two part-time chief officers, while the rest are volunteer, otherwise referred to as paid on-call (POC) firefighters. Normally the department has three part-time chiefs: the fire chief and two assistant chiefs. Schmooke, the assistant chief in charge of recruiting and retention, took over as interim fire chief last fall after the resignation of Eric Vandewater, who is a career (full-time) captain with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department.
Schmooke is also a career firefighter, working as a lieutenant with the Iowa City Fire Department (ICFD). Asst. Chief Bryan Hardin is the North Liberty’s fire marshal, handling building plan review and fire inspection duties, as well as a lieutenant with the ICFD.
Schmooke, who isn’t pursuing the full-time position in North Liberty, said it’s nonetheless warranted.
“There’s plenty to do,” he said. “When the new chief gets in, he’ll have to hit the ground running and start working on these programs, and program development, outreach, and collaborative efforts with other county agencies and really starting to put things together. So, they’ll be plenty busy.”
The new Chief won’t just be driving a desk; he or she will also be expected to respond to emergencies.
“They’re very much going to have an operational expectation as well as an administrative expectation,” Schmooke added.
Cox also called for making Chief Hardin’s spot full-time, as a “Community Risk Reduction” position. It could also be refferd to as the Fire Marshal or Fire Prevention Officer, he wrote.
He added it may be a civilian position but is normally filled by a certified firefighter with an educational background in suppression and detection systems, the building code and fire/life-safety codes.
“Based on current and projected workload, the duties of this position are going to continue to increase. This is a critically important position, within the city structure with a goal of life safety building compliance,” he wrote.
Cox envisioned hiring a full-time Chief as the first full-time hire, but argued for Hardin’s position to be the second.
“This would logically be considered as the second full-time fire personnel position to fill, as it has a direct correlation to daily customer service and the business community.”
According to the NLFD’s 2016 Annual Report, Hardin issued 53 permits ranging from automatic sprinkler systems to commercial kitchen hood fire suppression systems to fireworks displays. He conducted 61 plan reviews, a lengthy process that occurs during planning and construction of new buildings or renovations. Plan review also comes into play for proposed subdivisions ensuring adequate water supply for firefighting and for the maneuverability of fire apparatus.
Hardin also performed 94 fire inspections. The role of a fire inspector, working hand in hand with the city building department in a construction project, cannot be understated as the inspector has to sign off on all fire protection/detection/suppression and other life-safety considerations before an occupancy permit can be issued.
“He is a busy guy,” Heiar said, “With all the construction we’ve got going on, we’ve got more fire inspections going on with the restaurant up-tick, so he stays pretty busy.”
And, Hardin will have to stay busy on a part-time basis for a while longer, as the search for a full-time fire chief, approved in May by the city council, has an approximately 90-day timeframe, Heiar noted.
“So it’ll be a little bit after July when the new chief is hired. The advantage is we have a very qualified person (Schmooke) that has stepped in and is willing to take on the interim role.”
Heiar said Moulder and Associates will bring a number of recommended candidates to the city council which will be whittled down even further. The public will have the opportunity to meet the final candidates, he added, as they did during the police chief search.
As for Chief Hardin’s position, Schmooke said the two assistant chief positions will likely increase to three-quarters time.
“We have to make adjustments in stages when it comes to staffing,” Heiar said. “The cost associated with the process only allows us to do so much. We’ve had three part-time chiefs. We’re fortunate to have dedicated, experienced folks on the team that have an opportunity to have a part-time job like this. I would say that’s not the case in a lot of communities.”