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Charles City fire chief taking EMA position in Cerro Gordo County

By Bob Steenson, [email protected]

Longtime Charles City Fire Chief Eric Whipple has handed in his resignation to take another public safety position in a neighboring county.

“I accepted a position with Cerro Gordo County as their emergency management coordinator,” Whipple told the Press Thursday. He will be taking over for Steve O’Neil, who has led the Cerro Gordo County Emergency Management Agency for 22 years and is retiring.

Charles City fire chief taking EMA position in Cerro Gordo County
Eric Whipple has been Charles City Fire Chief since 2012.

“I think it was a new opportunity, a new challenge, I guess,” Whipple said. “It’s still dealing with, 75% of the time, still dealing with public safety, and it’s one of the few things in public safety that I haven’t done.”

Whipple has been fire chief for the last 10 years. He started in Floyd County as a dispatcher 21 years ago, then became a professional full-time firefighter and was later appointed chief.

The department has gone through some changes in the past year.

In 2010 the department had eight full-time professional firefighters who split shifts on duty at the fire station, in addition to the volunteer firefighters. That number fell to six and then to four professional firefighters over the next couple of years as people retired and were not replaced.

There had been four full-time firefighters splitting shifts so at least one person was always on duty at the fire station since 2013. But since the retirements this year of Darien Uetz and Marty Parcher, the number of professional firefighters has been just two – Whipple and Firefighter Curt Teeter.

The City Council has discussed whether the city can afford to replace those full-time firefighters, but has not come to a decision.

Whipple did not say that change was the reason for his decision, but he said it is a concern.

“I believe in what we’re doing as a fire department here. I’m a huge supporter of any public safety entity, whether it’s here or anywhere else,” he said.

“All I can say is you can see the trend over the last 10 years as far as full-time staff. What that means to our Fire Department – we’ll still have one (Teeter) – but obviously over the last year or so, since our first retirement took place, we’ve been unable to staff the station 24-7 like we used to,” he said.

With at least one firefighter always on duty, that person could immediately start driving a firetruck to a call and assess the situation as other firefighters answered their pagers and went to the fire station to get other vehicles or drove themselves to the location, Whipple has said before.

Not always having a firefighter at the station affects a lot of different things, from response times to not having someone at the firestation if someone drops by with questions, Whipple said.

“I know the financial situation …  is difficult,” he said. “The City Council and (City Administrator) Steve Diers have a lot of big and difficult decisions to make, I think, at least through this next budget season, which starts in a couple of months.

“I don’t know what direction they’re leaning toward. I really hope that they at least have a full-time chief, because I think there’s plenty of work to do that I’ve been doing. It deserves at least that, and somebody here at least full-time during the days and during the week,” Whipple said.

“My hope is they would consider hiring more full-time firefighters to replace the ones we lost to retirement. I just don’t know financially how they would be able to do that, or if they have different ideas,” he said.

Whipple said the volunteer side of the department also has vacancies, with 10 positions currently unfilled.

“The problem is volunteerism is kind of on the decline. It’s no different with the Fire Department, other than we have to have people who have the mindset of wanting to do the opposite of what your mind is telling you to do – running into a burning building instead of running out,” he said.

Whipple said his last day with the Department will be Nov. 2, and he’ll be on duty until then. He’ll start his new job in Cerro Gordo County on Nov. 14, training with the current coordinator O’Neil for a couple of weeks.

“I’m looking forward to working with Steve and learning more, obviously, about what he did and what’s coming down the pike for Cerro Gordo County,” Whipple said.

In announcing Whipple’s resignation, City Administrator Diers said, “The city would like to thank Eric for his many years of service and dedication to the community. We wish him the very best as he moves on to his next adventure.”

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