When Fort Dodge firefighters reported for duty a decade or more ago, they knew they would be assigned to one fire truck and would respond with it for their entire shift.
That's no longer the case.
Amid surging demand for Fire Department services, today's firefighters do a variety of missions on every shift. They may start their work day assigned to a particular pumper, but chances are good they'll find themselves going out with the hazardous materials truck or making a response with one of the ambulances before their shift is done. And at night and on weekends, one of nine specially trained firefighters will spend some time at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport, providing a required standby service as Great Lakes Airlines planes come and go.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
As part of their ongoing paramedic training, Fort Dodge Fire Department Lt. Jeff Hill goes over some of the items contained in the drug box carried aboard the ambulance with firefighter Joshua Carter, at left.
''You have to be extremely flexible,'' Capt. Steve Hergenreter said. ''It's very dynamic on every shift every day.''
The number of calls for help the department responds to keeps going up. According to Hergenreter, the department responded to 2,972 calls in 2012. He said that included 167 calls for the ambulance service started by the department in late 2011.
All of today's diverse duties are being done by a smaller group of firefighters. About 20 years ago, the Fire Department consisted of 37 members, with 10 on duty at any given time. Today, the department has 31 members, with six on duty at a time.
''You couldn't ask any more out of our guys,'' said Assistant Fire Chief Woody Wolfe.
In the past year, the department was reorganized to create a full-time fire marshal's position to handle inspections.
Assistant Fire Chief Doug Ostbloom became the fire marshal on July 1. Working from an office in the Municipal Building, he handles most inspections and serves as the primary source of information on fire safety and prevention.
In years past, the inspections were handled by three assistant chiefs.
''The true service to the community is that I have one person to do inspections and answer questions about inspections,'' said Fire Chief David Luers. ''The continuity of services has improved as a result of that position.''
Luers said there are 900 businesses in Fort Dodge that are required to undergo fire inspections.
Paramedics and ambulances
The Fire Department has a long history of responding to medical emergencies and providing life-saving care before an ambulance from Trinity Regional Medical Center arrives.
In late 2011, the department started an ambulance service to supplement, but not replace, the service provided by the hospital. Firefighters respond with one of their two ambulances whenever the hospital doesn't have a unit available. Those responses include both emergency calls and transfers from the local hospital to other facilities.
The 167 Fire Department ambulance responses last year included 84 transfers and 83 emergencies.
''That means you had 83 911 calls where people didn't have to wait for an ambulance to transport them to the hospital,'' Hergenreter said.
This year, seven firefighters will take an accelerated course to earn certification as paramedics. A paramedic can do all kinds of pre-hospital care, including interpreting heart rhythms and administering drugs.
The paramedic class will be held two days a week for eight hours a day at the firehouse.
Luers said the course will be a quick one that will progress twice as fast as a normal paramedic curriculum.
''We're conducting a two-year class in one year,'' he said.
If all seven pass the course, 15 of the 31 firefighters will be certified as paramedics.
The newly certified paramedics will be expected to stay with the Fire Department or pay for their training.
''If we train them, they must stay for five years or reimburse the city for the costs of the training,'' Luers said.
All new firefighters must earn paramedic certification within three years of being hired.
Luers said he hopes to work with the Police Department, Webster County 911 dispatchers and the hospital to implement a new way of dispatching medical emergency calls. He said it's called priority dispatching for emergency medical service. The system, he said, enables the dispatchers to provide some medical advice to those who call 911 to report a medical emergency, and ensures that the right units are sent to the scene.
Luers described it as a ''very disciplined approach to dispatching.'' He said it would cost $40,000 to start, and $2,000 a year to operate.
Accomplishments of 2012
The paramedic course will be taught in a classroom that was renovated in the past year by the firefighters.
That was one of two remodeling jobs completed in the firehouse at 1515 Central Ave. The kitchen, which had changed little since the building opened in 1966, received a major facelift in December with the financial support of CJ Bio America. That company, which is building an amino acid plant in the North Central Ag Industrial Park, spent about $19,000 to buy the needed building materials and some new appliances.
''They gave us this tremendous gift,'' Luers said.
Much of the work was done by the firefighters.
''Guys even came in on their days off,'' Wolfe said.
The kitchen was finished in three weeks.
In an effort to give more safety knowledge to Fort Dodge children, the Fire Department joined forces with the Police Department and the Iowa State Patrol to conduct a safety camp for kindergarteners and first-graders in June.
The Fort Dodge Safety Village Camp was held at the Corpus Christi Center, 405 N. Eighth St. Children who attended learned fire prevention, safety around railroad tracks, bicycle and pedestrian safety, safe use of the Internet and how to call 911. A $1,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health and donations from 15 local businesses paid for the camp.
This year's edition of the camp will be held in early June, according to Hergenreter.