Mental health calls, drought keep fire and EMS busy
The Red Oak Fire Department has closed out another successful year of providing emergency services to the community.
Chief John Bruce said mental health issues were a large majority of calls in 2022, which is very similar to what Red Oak Police Chief Justin Rhamy said about 2022 calls for the department.
“Not only have the calls increased, but it’s taking us further and further to get the treatment,” explained Bruce. “We’re transporting to Council Bluffs, and we’re doing a lot of transports to Des Moines, so instead of that treatment being available 50-60 miles away, now it’s 115 miles away, and that’s one way.”
Not only are local transports adding miles to the department’s vehicles, Bruce said that while the Red Oak Fire Department’s fire district is 181 square miles, they are covering 477 square miles, based on the reality of where they’re going for responses.
“The medical responses are taking us farther and farther away. Some of that’s due to a decrease in volunteerism, or agencies unable to answer the calls because of their own particular staffing. A lot of these folks are in bedroom communities, and it takes their folks out of the community during the day, as a lot of people have to work outside of town,” Bruce said. “We’re seeing more and more assistance needed in other communities. We’re starting to get into Griswold a little bit, and we’ve had to go into Grant, because Cass County doesn’t have squads available at the time.”
Bruce said that because of that increase in coverage, staffing has become a hot topic for the department.
“It’s leading to the point where we need people to cover the transfers and cover the 911 calls and have adequate coverage because so much responsibility is being thrust upon the department to respond to these other communities to assist. It’s been pulling us very thin,” Bruce advised.
The department has made great strides to get four rescue squads and getting staff to critical paramedic levels, and the next step is to get part time wages appropriate for the first responders who hold the certifications. Bruce said they’re the pool they use for full time career first responders, and the pool is very thin. His hope is to add two new people to the department in 2023, citing it as the last piece of the puzzle.
“Everybody agrees so far that we should be there, because it’s not just about the transfers, it’s about the ease of getting things covered. Shenandoah and Clarinda are having a hard time finding people to cover, and they were our go-tos. I don’t see the staffing with these agencies getting any better as we go forward. The world has changed a lot from when we grew up, and you have to adapt to it, or you’re going to fall down and fail. Thankfully, we have a great crew here, with an age and a professionalism that works.”
While the department’s fourth ambulance was ordered in 2022, final preparations are being made to the vehicle before it’s delivered. One of the biggest new features the department is looking forward to is the ambulance’s power load system.
“It takes a lot of manual lifting out of the equation, which improves safety and ease of transport. You can wheel the patient right up to it, lock them in and go. It will be great for our transfers, because you’re almost always on hard surface making transfers from hospital to hospital. Now we don’t have to worry about our crews getting any back injuries,” Bruce said. “It’ll keep the inventory up, and there are no zero call days anymore. We’re out on the road every day for some thing, or sometimes multiple things.”
One additional firefighter was added to the roster in 2022. Bruce said he’s pleased that the ROFD turnover is very low.
“It’s always worrisome because Council Bluffs is near. I think part of it is because we do our best to have a work and life balance, so you keep the burnout low. They get their time away, and do rotation on calls, just little things to make things easier,” Bruce said.
Bruce said the most interesting call of 2022 happened in October: the wildland fire north of Red Oak in the vicinity of Highway 34 and A Avenue. Bruce said it was a fire that would be archived career-wise, because it was so hard to tackle.
“We dealt with 50 mph winds, and the thing burned for over four miles. It was strategy between EMA coordinator Brian Hamman and myself to split operations and get it tackled. We didn’t lose any structures and had no serious injuries to firefighters and no loss of equipment,” Bruce said. “Those are the types of fires where you see trucks burned up or firefighters being killed, because it’s a rural setting and they get cornered in a fenced area where the fire advances on them.”
Also, Bruce attributed their success in battling the fire to a lot of civilian support from people who brought tractors to the scene.
“The farmers don’t send us bills. Not a single one sent us a bill for bringing tractors and discs and running them. That’s diesel, and wear and tear on their stuff. Without them, we would have lost control. With the 50 mph winds, it was just a blowtorch out there. Thankfully, we’ve had years and years of networking, and everyone has cell phones. Most of the time, they reach out to us and ask if they can help. The bonds just get stronger and stronger. There’s a lot of support out there that isn’t on paper. People will come out when the situation is bad,” Bruce advised.
Bruce also said it’s a proud feeling to see neighboring departments, such as the Glenwood Fire Department, build their emergency services program from the Red Oak model.
“It’s a pride thing for us to have these folks say we’re doing things right and are doing things we like, and we’re going to build our program off of you guys. We’re talking city government, administrators, departments, and associations, and all of them are saying we need to do what Red Oak is doing,” Bruce stated.
Also, Bruce said the department keeps an open door policy, so if any of the staff finds something they think will be a good fit, like the recent peer support program, they can bring the idea in and make it work for the department.
“It becomes their program, and then they’re that much more invested in the department,” Bruce said.
As we move further into 2023, Bruce said the department’s biggest challenge will be tackling what’s being placed on emergency services in today’s standard, and what people expect.
“It’s going to come down to increased call volume, and area of coverage, and getting us aligned with that. Also, we’re continuously evaluating our system to fine tune things that could be a little bit better. As charging stations for electric vehicles become more prominent, we’ll need more trainings for how to respond,” stated Bruce. “If the carbon pipeline comes to fruition, how do we train for that. And we’ll also have to keep up with all the confined space and special ops. There’s a lot on the plate, and it takes a lot to be prepared and tackle the challenges. We don’t like to be behind the eight ball; we want to be ahead of it if we can.”
Lastly, Bruce expected the continued relationships with other departments will continue to get better, as the network is getting more and more open, and various departments are backing each other up as the need arises.