Annual Report shows high level of preparedness at Webster City Fire Department

Chuck Stansfield, chief of the Webster City Fire Department, stands beside one of the city's mainstay fire trucks. Good maintenance has kept apparatus in serviceable condition past the normal asset life of such equipment, he said.

The Webster City Fire Department submitted its annual report for 2023 during the City Council of Webster City meeting Monday, April 15, 2024. The report, which can be viewed on the city’s Facebook page, documents a department making good use of its people and resources today, while identifying, and preparing for, serious challenges in future.

The Daily Freeman Journal met with Fire Chief Chuck Stansfield to discuss the report and its implications for public safety.

WCFD’s present staff stands at four full time, four part time and 20 volunteer firefighters, a force Stansfield calls “adequate.” Still, his goal is to increase that to 35, mostly with more volunteers, to ensure enough trained, experienced staff are available to meet every call.

What does it take to join the force? New firefighters must complete a year-long training course to become certified. Hazard Materials and Operations certification requires additional written, and practical examinations. According to Stanfield, all candidates must pass “medium difficulty agility tests on a timed course, including climbing a 75-foot ladder, and participating in search and rescue scenario simulations.”

He calls this “a rigorous process.”

In 2023, WCFD answered 170 calls, including: 45 fire calls, 40 hazardous material calls, 29 false alarms, and 26 service calls. It reflects a trend in Webster City — and across the nation — of fewer, but more deadly fires. Examples of hazmat calls include those involving fuel spills, and gas and carbon monoxide leaks.

Also in 2023, WCFD completed seven “vehicle extrications.” Simply put, this is rescuing people trapped inside a motor vehicle, ordinarily due to an accident.

Fire is the third highest cause of death in the United States. A key reason for this is the way new homes are built. The combination of light wood construction — typically 2 by 4s and engineered wood framing — and higher temperatures of burning contents means fires ignite easier and spread faster.

Just how fast can a fire spread? Probably faster than you think.

One of the greatest causes, says Stansfield, is flashover.

“It’s a situation in which all combustible materials in a room reach ignition temperature at the same time. When this happens, you might have less than three minutes to safely leave the building.”

For WCFD, the implications are clear: an early, strong response is more important than ever.

This was well-illustrated in 2023’s largest fire in the building at 608 Second Street, which many remember as the former Bettis Appliance Store. The fire there was contained about four hours after the alarm was raised. Damage from fire was confined to the 608 building. It was water damage, from spraying fire hoses, that destroyed the interior of the adjacent Webster Theatre, but saved the building that houses it.

Stansfield told The Daily Freeman Journal that had a simple device — a monitored fire alarm — been in use at 608 Second Street, it would have been “a very different fire.” Response would have been hours sooner, with damage limited to cosmetic and smoke damage, and minor water damage from fire hoses putting out a much smaller fire. It’s even possible, he believes, there would have been little or no damage to the Webster Theatre.

Monitored fire alarms rely on a small sensor that’s easily installed. It’s connected to a 24/7 monitoring center, often in a distant city. When smoke or fire is detected, the sensor sends a message to the monitoring center, which, in turn, phones the local fire department. Response to fires with these systems is hours faster than simply relying on someone to smell smoke or see flames before phoning for help.

Monitored fire alarms often aren’t required by building codes.

Stansfield explained, “these systems are required when the size of a building and expected occupancy warrant it. If a building has a sprinkler system, that will be monitored. The cost of a monitored fire alarm can be a burden for a small business, so they’re not as common as we’d like them to be.”

Year-Round Training Schedule

WCFD spent 1,569 hours in training in 2023. A big event for the department each year is the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis. It allows firefighters from across the country to step back from their everyday work, look at what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. They come home with new skills they can share with fellow firefighters.

In 2023, two Webster City firefighters went to Indianapolis to learn about rapid intervention training. The technique calls for a designated firefighter to initiate an immediate search for a firefighter trapped, injured, missing or otherwise unaccounted-for at the site of a fire.

A key precept of rapid intervention, according to Stansfield, “is to always know where you are in a fire so you can quickly escape.”

It was used effectively in the 608 Second Street fire.

In 2022, WCFD sent one of its firefighters to the conference to learn about rescuing people in stuck elevators. Since then, the department has been called twice for this purpose.

“Today, our entire staff is ready to perform this kind of rescue. We freed some people stuck in an elevator in a local apartment complex recently. It only took 8 to 9 minutes.”

Older Apparatus Identified as a Weakness

WCFD uses a technique to set out the department’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats: SWOT for short. Each year, in January, every employee — full time, part time and volunteer, is expected to participate. The 2022 SWOT exercise highlighted the risk of fire in older, underutilized or vacant buildings ahead of the 2023 608 Second Street fire downtown.

Key strengths listed in the 2023 annual report included: training, strong staff dedication, and rapid response time (90% of call sites were reached less than 4 minutes after dispatch). Weaknesses cited include: the age of apparatus (trucks and other fire fighting equipment),

advancing age of firefighters, and more calls for service, among others.

Opportunities identified were: engaging, educating and encouraging the public to become fire safety conscious, strong fire protection information campaigns, and a fire cadet program that is slowly, but steadily, leading to more and younger volunteers.

The fleet’s oldest vehicles include a 41-year-old tanker/pumper, a 33-year-old pumper, and a 25-year-old “first out” engine.

The National Fire Protection Association suggests “first out” equipment should be no older than 20 years. Indeed, the annual report recognized that “old apparatus tops the list for the biggest area of weakness in the department.”

Replacing that equipment tops another kind of list: that of the most expensive vehicles Webster City, or any city, must buy to ensure public safety. The purchase cost of a new aerial ladder truck is $1.5 million. Annual maintenance adds even more to the cost of owning such equipment.

Still, Stansfield notes, the WCFD has kept its aging apparatus in service by “taking really good care of really good equipment.” While he would clearly like new engines as soon as possible, he’s confident they remain ready for front-line duty until city budgets allow replacement.

Public Outreach is a Priority

Every other year, WCFD hosts an open house at the Webster City Firehouse, 919 Superior Street. The 2024 open house is set for Tuesday, October 15, 2024.

Stansfield says the program will largely follow the agenda of the 2022 event.

“Last open house, we served 300 to 350 people a light dinner. We took young people on a walk through the firehouse; there was a bouncy castle for the very youngest kids. Both Sparky the firedog (a fire department officer in costume) and Oreo, a real dalmatian, made an appearance.

“Adults were instructed how to ‘stop, drop and roll’ (a procedure to use should you find your clothing on fire), how to use a fire extinguisher, how to safely evacuate a house filled with smoke, and how to handle a fire hose. We want to have something of interest for everyone.”

WCFD has a presence at numerous local events, including National Night Out, Career on Wheels, Boy Scouts in the Park, Market Nights downtown, Halloween trick-or-treat, the Hamilton County Fair and Christmas parades, and EMS (emergency medical services) and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) classes.

Each year in October, which is National Fire Prevention month, WCFD staff visit every preschool, day care, and elementary school in the city to put on a fire prevention awareness program. About 750 students take part.

Commercial premise inspections are made to look at the presence, and condition of, fire extinguishers, exit lights, emergency lighting, unsafe conditions (“piggy-backed” extension cords are a commonly-seen hazard). Stansfield stresses that, while the department prefers to make recommendations, it retains the authority to enforce fire codes.

He noted, “Every code in the present compendium is probably there because someone died from that condition or situation.”

Finally, WCFD has three staff members fully certified for the proper installation and use of child safety seats. This can be especially helpful for those buying new safety seats, or installing them in new cars for the first time.

Staffing Tomorrow’s Fire Department

Stansfield identifies societal changes as a probable cause for his difficulty in attracting people to become firefighters.

“The spirit of public service, of volunteering, is lower than in the past,” he said. “People lead very busy lives with less real leisure time, so they’re just not as likely to want to spend that time answering a fire call as in the past.”

One answer to the problem is WCFD’s fire cadet program. Started four years ago, 10 people have gone through it so far. Stansfield says it’s an unqualified success.

“They have their own gear; they participate in all our drills — except when there’s a conflict with school, or school activities. They usually ride our second truck out to a call; they’re extremely helpful in supporting the work of front-line staff.”

Cadet program applicants must be at least 14 years old and have parental consent to join the program.

“The very youngest cadets haven’t reached legal driving age, so parental support is crucial if they’re going to participate,” Stansfield said.

Results of the cadet program thus far are encouraging. Two graduates are now full-time firefighters in other departments.

Like military life, working in a fire department often leads to intense friendships, ones in which firefighters are bonded forever by adrenaline, danger and the sense of working toward the public good. Stansfield becomes almost emotional when talking about his staff.

“We rely heavily on the work of our amazing captains. Their professionalism and experience makes them a recruiting target for private firefighting companies. They’re highly sought-after.”

With obvious pride, and just the faintest hint of swagger, Stansfield sums up his admiration for the force, saying, “There are no words to express the level of dedication and commitment to

our community, and the natural camaraderie of these firefighters for each other, and the department.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $3.46/week.

Subscribe Today