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A plan for the future

NLFD’s Chief Platz lays out a Strategic Plan to the city council
North Liberty firefighter candidate Darrek Elwood holds the ladder for Firefighter Travis Foster Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011 during a Truck Company drill at the fire station. Neither man was on the department’s rapidly evolving roster in 2018. (file photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) has been grappling with how best to meet the challenges of a constantly growing community, while also facing recruiting and retention issues coupled with an increased demand for services, for several years. Chief Brian Platz presented a five-year strategic plan for the department to the North Liberty City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 11, outlining how the predominantly volunteer department is addressing the challenges it faces, and is changing to meet the projected demands of the future.

Study and recommendations

In 2016, the city commissioned a study of the fire department, which looked at possibly sharing services or working closely with neighboring fire departments as a way to improve efficiency. City Administrator Ryan Heiar said at the time the study was an attempt to “evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and if we could be doing anything different or better.” The city hired Donald Cox, a consultant in emergency services and retired West Des Moines Fire Chief to conduct the study. Cox delivered his findings after three months of study to the council in March 2017. Cox looked at such things as response times and staffing compared to recommendations from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). His report to the council included a number of recommendations broken down into “short term,” “mid-range” and “long term” timeframes.

Among his short-term recommendations was hiring a full-time fire chief. At the time, the department was composed of volunteer firefighters, lieutenants and captains with three part-time chief officers (a chief and two assistant chiefs). The city began a search in early 2017 with Moulder and Associates, LLC hired to seek out and evaluate qualified candidates. Forty-eight applications were received, which were trimmed down to 15, then ten and finally five including Platz, who was a deputy chief for the Iowa City Fire Department and former assistant chief for the volunteer Solon Fire Department. Platz was hired and assumed his duties on Nov. 6, 2017.

Chief Platz oversees a force of 43 volunteers and two part-time assistant chiefs (Fire Marshal Bryan Hardin and Training and Administration Chief Bill Schmooke). The department is responsible for fire fighting, non-transport emergency medical services (EMS), rescue, hazardous materials (HAZMAT) incidents, code enforcement and public education, and emergency preparedness for the City of North Liberty as well as Penn and Madison Townships. NLFD’s response district is roughly 56 square miles with a population of 23,000 residents. The department’s responses continue to increase 10 percent per year, the plan states.

Response rate

In 2017, the NLFD rolled out 1,269 times, making it “the busiest volunteer fire department in the county.” Fifty-one percent of those runs were for first responder (EMS) calls with “good intent” calls the second highest. The department announced on Jan. 4 the total number of calls for service for 2018 was 1,300.

In 2017, 258 runs were cancelled, which the plan states, is “a significant portion of the overall call volume. The department believes this is mostly attributed to our lengthy turnout times which allows the responding ambulance (often coming from Coralville) to arrive before first responders (NLFD) and handle the incident without our assistance.”

One factor for such cancellations, the plan states, is likely due to the amount of time it takes firefighters to respond to the station once they’ve been dispatched by the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC or “J-COM”).

The goal of the NLFD is to get personnel and equipment out the door and on the scene as quickly as possible. It is a bit of a cliché to say, “in an emergency, seconds count,” but the reality supports it. Fire can double in size every minute, and irreversible brain damage occurs within six minutes of cardiac arrest.

The department surveyed “external stakeholders” in the community regarding their thoughts on the fire department, with a quick response by highly trained responders determined as an expectation. “This expectation can be a daunting proposition with a volunteer staff in a rapidly developing community,” the plan states.

Multiple factors are in play with every emergency response, it notes, starting with call processing (receiving the 9-1-1 call and dispatching the responders) by J-COM, the department’s turnout (in the trucks and out the station doors) time and travel time to the emergency scene. While call processing is outside the control of the NLFD, the department’s turnout and travel times are directly impacted by its actions and established response model, the plan said.

Turnout time

A bigger community means firefighters are living farther and farther away from the station. Also, increased traffic congestion and additional traffic signals further delay their response, it was noted. The plan also states the average turnout time in 2017 was five minutes and 19 seconds (from receiving the alarm from J-COM) with an average travel time to the scene of three minutes and 18 seconds. “It can’t be overstated that this is an average with half of the times better and half the times worse,” the plan said. The fire service looks at response times at the 90th percentile, which means a figure at the 90th percentile means 90 percent of the responses are better than the figure provided. The 90th percentile for the NLFD in 2017, was a turnout time of nine minutes, 54 seconds and a travel time of six minutes, 41 seconds.

The NFPA, which generates industry standards for the fire service, calls for the first unit to be on-scene within four minutes of travel time, and that all units responding to the call arrive within eight minutes of travel time. For a city like Cedar Rapids, with nine fire stations strategically placed throughout the community and staffed 24/7/365 by full-time career staff, a four-minute response time is more likely than in a city such as North Liberty, with one station and an all-volunteer force, which is often responding to the station from home or work. The consultant’s report did call for a possible second fire station as well as moving toward a combination department with career and volunteer firefighters serving side-by-side.

The department began taking steps to improve staffing and decrease out-the-door turnout time when it sought and received permission in 2014 from the city council to accept members from out-of-town, who would stay at the station providing a guaranteed response– the position requires 32 hours of on-call availability per month– and shortening turnout time. Also, firefighters created a bunkroom by placing four cubicles in what had previously been the Council Chambers (City Hall, the police depart. and fire dept. all once shared the building at 25 W. Cherry St.). Each “cube” contained a bed and small nightstand. The arrangement made it easier for out-of-town members to pull overnight shifts with a place to sleep, and also provided an option for in-town members covering nights without having to disturb their families with a late-night response.

Remodeling and district coverage

Recently the department undertook a remodeling project involving four rooms in the station. “We are creating a bunk room with four beds for overnight coverage, a training officers’ office, a unisex locker room and a day room,” Chief Platz said in an email.

“We’re actually changing things up a bit and putting the bunk room down by the (current) meeting room. This allows us to get it away from the work out area, and at the same time we get the benefit of having personnel closer to the trucks, which can equate to a shorter turnout time,” he added. Firefighters are doing some of the demolition work and will also do some of the painting and final prep, which will provide some cost savings on the project, Platz said. “The funds are coming from the current fire department operating budget as well as some capital funds within the budget. Investing in the current station will hopefully allow us to progress toward a combination staffing model,” the chief said.

“By combining turnout time, travel time, and call processing time, we start to paint the picture of needed improvement,” the plan states. “The department will be considering these elements as it adjusts in the years to come. This issue will be of the highest priority.”

In an effort to ensure adequate manpower is available around the clock, the department is a participant in the Johnson County Mutual Aid Association’s Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). In MABAS, departments divide their fire districts into “boxes” (response areas) with up to five alarm assignments bringing specific resources from neighboring departments. The NLFD also has an automatic aid agreement with the Solon Fire Department for structure fires within specific parts of North Liberty’s district. Under MABAS, Solon responds on the first alarm with other departments sending firefighters and equipment as subsequent alarms (“second alarm,” “third alarm,” etc.) are called for by the Incident Commander (IC).

The department also continues to seek new recruits with the current application period ending on Friday, Jan. 18. New members undergo a year as a probationary firefighter during which they receive extensive in-house training. All NLFD firefighters are required to attain Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 certification as well as EMS certification to at least the EMT (emergency medical technician) level. Several members are certified as advanced EMTs (AEMT) or paramedics.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

The department utilized a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis to candidly identify its positive and less-than-desirable attributes. Among the strengths identified were: Members are here for the right reason, great apparatus and equipment, solid recruitment process & numerous applications, strong social media outreach, the NLFD is involved in the community, great community support, department pride and dedication, performance standards, family support and support services, and professional.

Weaknesses the department self-identified included: Long response times, lack of staffing to respond, members don’t live close to the department, low budget compared to like sized communities, outgrowing our aging facility, large geographical coverage, city infrastructure playing catch-up, recruitment, lack of training facility, historical disconnect with the city as a department, burnout, no response situations, and morale.

Opportunities were also identified, including: Joint training (with other area departments), additional partnerships, seat at the city table, adjust station — bunkroom (in-progress), expansion of services – second fire station, increase public good will, grants, retention & training of new firefighters, improve ISO rating, explorer/cadet program, organizational rebuilding and community risk reduction.

Threats to the organization, as determined by the members, included: Decreasing or flat lined budget, constant road construction, burnout, lack of public confidence, aging fleet, community unwilling to volunteer, increasing call volume, lengthy response times, increased traffic, lightweight construction (meaning new houses will burn even faster), and population and land increase.

From the SWOT self assessment, the department identified six strategic initiatives: Staffing & Deployment, Training, Community Preparedness, Public Education & Outreach, Physical Resources, and Risk Assessment. Each subject has specific goals with defined objectives, timeframes for completion and “critical tasks” to be completed. For example, under “Staffing & Deployment,” one objective is to “Evaluate existing staffing options and determine the best model for NLFD.” Within a four-month timeframe, Chief Platz is to complete seven critical tasks including: “Consider fulltime/part time/paid per call/volunteer models, Consider financial implication of potential models, Consider burnout and negative implications of potential models,” and “Propose model to city administration.” Another objective is to “Reduce overall response time” with Chief Platz charged with determining the best option for traffic pre-emption (changing traffic signals to give oncoming emergency vehicles a green light for a quicker and safer response) for reduced travel times. Among the critical tasks identified are: “Explore existing systems used within emergency services, consult other internal and external stakeholders (NLPD, JCAS, Coralville Fire Dept.), choose a traffic pre-emption system,” and “Propose system to city administration.”

Maintaining a strong rating

The Strategic Plan also notes the department carries a Class 4 rating through the Insurance Services Organization (ISO). This rating is used by insurance companies to determine fire insurance premiums and looks at the department’s equipment, staffing, water supply, communications and other factors. “The NLFD has been rated at a 4 for many years,” the plan states, adding it “just barely” kept the rating during the most recent inspection. An improved rating, it said, “will positively impact community insurance premiums.” The plan notes out of roughly 48,000 fire departments rated by the ISO, only 7,264 had a rating of 4 or better. “Of the 11,599 fire departments rated by ISO in Iowa, only 64 departments had a rating of 4 or better,” it said adding, “Attaining certain objectives within this document will position the department to realize an improved rating, which will positively impact community insurance premiums.”

The plan concludes by stating, “The NLFD strategic plan creates a platform for a wide range of beginnings. This plan will come to life by being shared, debated, and implemented in the context of organizational realities. The final step in the community-driven strategic planning process is to develop organizational and community commitment to the plan. Everyone who has a stake in the present and future of the NLFD, has a role and responsibility in this strategic plan.”