The vast majority of firefighting and emergency response services in the state of Iowa are provided by volunteers – men and women who prepare for and respond to emergencies in their communities. In Mount Vernon, Iowa a volunteer fire department is responsible for responding first to all 911 calls.
The volunteer department consists of 32 trained firefighters who, in addition to their full-time jobs, volunteer on-call hours to respond to emergencies in their community.
Tim Keegan wears a pager on his belt. “This is a lifestyle, really,” he says. The father of two works full-time as a farmer, but dedicates a significant amount of time to the department.
“When I was a kid, my dad was sick a lot, and so we often had volunteer emergency responders out to our house,” Tim recalls. “I’ve always really appreciated that, and so it made sense for me to volunteer as well.”
Many of the volunteer firefighters have deep ties to Mount Vernon, and their service continues a family tradition. Derek Boren, for example, is a second generation volunteer firefighter.
“My grandpa was a captain of this department,” he explains. “When I moved back after college, a lot of my friends were already volunteering. I guess you could say the firebug bit me.”
Boren finds significant meaning in his volunteer work. “When someone calls 911, they expect someone to be there to help. In Mount Vernon, it’s volunteers that do that,” he explains. “People have busy lives, but volunteering does make the world a better place.”
Nathan Goodlove, who also works for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, says that it’s important for people to recognize that so many of these vital services are provided by volunteer citizens, rather than paid career public servants. In fact, not only are firefighters unpaid, they also have to support their efforts with private fundraising.
“We needed to keep our taxpayer funding separate from other donations we get from people in the community – the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation was a great fit for us.” They established the Mount Vernon Volunteer Firefighter’s Association Fund.
The organization also obtained nonprofit status.
Now, the group can keep their state and privately raised finances separate – which allows them to fundraise more efficiently in the community they serve.
Community outreach events like the group’s annual pancake breakfast allow the fire department to raise money. These funds support the needs of the department as they arise and they allow firefighters to purchase needed technology and life-saving equipment.
“Taxpayer funding takes care of basic operating costs and the essentials, but we need to fundraise to fill the gap,” explains Goodlove. “We just used donated funds to purchase extrication equipment, which allows us to remove a vehicle from around a person who has been involved in an accident.”
With help from the community, the Mount Vernon Fire Department can ensure it has the best equipment and training to help its neighbors in an emergency.
Still, the most valuable asset to the fire department is its volunteers - the men and women who donate so many hours to be there for their community when it needs them most. “It’s something you and your family have to have a passion for because it takes so much of your time,” explains Keegan. “It becomes a part of your lifestyle, and that’s why you see members who are volunteer firefighters for 30 or 40 years.”