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North Liberty to pick its first full-time fire chief

Then there were five
The five candidates for North Liberty’s first full-time fire chief participated in a community meet and greet Wednesday, Aug. 2, in the community library. The men underwent a battery of assessments the following day ahead of a final recommendation by consulting firm Moulder & Associates. City Administrator Ryan Heiar hoped to have the new chief selected and approved by the city council this month. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– In 2016, the City of North Liberty commissioned a study of the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) and its operations after a goal-setting session by the city council looked at the possibility of sharing services or working more closely with surrounding fire departments in an effort to improve efficiency. Retired West Des Moines Fire Chief Donald Cox, a consultant in emergency services, was hired to conduct the study. He presented his findings to the council at its March 14 meeting. Top among several recommendations was the hiring of a full-time fire chief.
The council approved hiring a full-time chief in late May and hired Moulder & Associates LLC, a professional consulting and recruiting firm specializing in executive-level law enforcement and fire service positions to conduct a search for qualified candidates.
“Since this is the first time North Liberty has hired a full-time fire chief, they had some pretty specific requirements,” William Moulder said. Among those requirements was experience in a career, full-time paid position at a fire department as well as in a volunteer role. Currently the NLFD has two part-time career chief officers, with the rank and file members serving as paid-on-call volunteers. “That was a big criteria, a mixed organization experience,” Moulder added.
Second on the list was a requirement for the candidate to either have attended, or be attending, the National Fire Officer’s School in Emmetsburg, Va. Leadership experience was an obvious must, and preference was given to candidates working in a department that combined career and volunteer staff. Moulder noted that the top five candidates met both requirements.
Forty-eight applications were received and whittled down to 15 based on experience, education and meeting the city’s criteria.
“That was the easy part,” said Moulder. “We asked 20 to complete an essay telling us how they would go about doing this job, because it’s the first time anybody’s done this job.”
The department has relied on a part-time chief for several years with Assistant Chief Bill Schmooke assuming the duty of interim chief on top of his recruiting and retention officer duties after the retirement of Eric Vandewater last year. Assessing the candidates’ ability to articulate what they were going to do whittled the list down to 10. Those 10 became the final five after further review by the city, Moulder said.
“One thing we were looking for, was that they should fit this city specifically,” said Stephen L. Niebur, one of Moulder’s consultants. “We didn’t just want a general fire chief; we wanted the best fit for the town.”
Moulder and Niebur were already familiar with North Liberty as they assisted in the search for a police chief after the resignation of Jim Warkentin in 2012, which led to the appointment of current Chief Diane Venenga.
Moulder said that he is “really pleased” with the final five. “North Liberty is a very attractive position,” he explained. “It’s a growing city, it’s the chance for someone to come in and shape the department … not take the department where it is and move it on, but actually create the structure moving forward.” He cited Cox’s research as a good foundation to build upon. “I knew we were going to get some very well-qualified candidates, and we did.”
The city “can’t make a bad decision,” added Niebur. “It’s just which good decision will they make.”
The candidates spent Thursday, Aug. 3, in a daylong “assessment center” comprised of various interviews and tactical scenarios. Jeff Cayler, of Cayler Consulting, Inc., administered the assessments.
“We’ll gather information from the city about what issues might a new fire chief run into on their first day on the job,” Cayler said. “Are there political issues? Are there building issues? The emergency medical response … your area is pretty big and such. So we try to identify things that are relevant and specific to the City of North Liberty.”
Three fire chiefs– Schmooke, Marshalltown Chief David Rierson and Hiawatha Fire Chief Mike Nesslage– interviewed the candidates, who completed a written exercise and gave a presentation along with responses to the aforementioned tactical scenarios. One aspect of the North Liberty position is the expectation that the chief will function not only as the department’s top administrator, but will also don the gear and respond on calls for service.
“Basically we want to see if the candidate can do the things a chief will have to do,” Cayler said. The tactical scenarios required the candidates to walk the assessors through the first hour of an incident in ranked order of importance, and why. At the end of the day Cayler had a list of the candidates with their scores. Four city department heads also interviewed the candidates, as did Mayor Terry Donahue and Heiar.
“At the end of the day we bring in all of those groups and start comparing notes. Nine times out of 10, all of the groups say, ‘We gotta hire this guy,’ or it’s close between one or two people. It’s a good process, the results have been good,” Cayler said. A consensus evaluation was passed along to Heiar, who will make the final decision and give his recommendation to the city council for approval.
“On paper, they all look great,” Heiar said. “Chatting with them a little bit today, I think reassures us we’ve got five good options. We’re going to have a difficult decision. And that’s what we wanted.”
Heiar noted the city would like to have the new chief on board sooner than later and that he expects the council to approve the appointment at either the Aug. 8 or Aug. 22 meeting.