When a Bettendorf family called 911 last month, frantic to get emergency medical help, the nearby fire station wasn't open.
Robert and Jodi Brown would have driven their son to the hospital themselves had they known the Surrey Heights Fire Station, less than two miles from their house, wasn't staffed the night their son had an asthma attack.
The Browns had no idea emergency crews were being sent from the State Street station downtown, and it would take more than 10 minutes for help to arrive.
Two days later, 27-year-old Matthew Brown was declared brain dead, having been deprived of oxygen for too long. His parents donated Matt's organs, fell into deep grief, then went to City Hall to find out why help didn't come sooner.
Fire Chief Steve Knorrek said the Surrey Heights Fire Station at Middle and Crow Creek roads typically is staffed by resident volunteers during overnight hours. But a recent turnover had left the station temporarily understaffed and, therefore, out of service.
Asked whether the Browns' need for emergent response was a case of bad timing, Knorrek replied, "Unfortunately, yes."
But it wasn't a first-time problem for Bettendorf fire.
Fire house staffing debate reignites
In at least one wrongful-death lawsuit that resulted from a fire fatality, Bettendorf had to pay a settlement.
When a $3 million home on the city's north side was destroyed by fire in 2006, it gave new fuel to the debate over Bettendorf's long-standing tradition of relying heavily on volunteers to staff their fire departments.
After the '06 fire at the Humes home, many were critical of fire department staffing levels and resulting response times. Bettendorf employed just 18 full-time firefighters, supplemented by 20 volunteers. At the same time, the city of East Moline had twice as many professional firefighters, even though the city has a considerably smaller population.
By December of '06, then-chief Gerry Voelliger had for several years been asking to hire more full-time firefighters. No one was arguing against using volunteers to bolster the city crews, but too much reliance on volunteers was a gamble, because their schedules are unreliable, and some lack experience, fire officials said.
“We’re not having a debate,” City Administrator Decker Ploehn insisted at the time. “We have a combination department. We’re going to continue to have a combination department.”
When asked whether the City Council would consider requests by the fire chief and the firefighters union to increase the number of fire department personnel, Ploehn said the council was “extremely satisfied” with the current department.
Even so, the next year, the Bettendorf City Council approved the fire chief's long-time request to add three more firefighters.
Two years later, in 2009, another three were hired.
In the decade that since has passed, Bettendorf has added only one more firefighter — for a rental-housing inspection position — even though the city's population has grown by about 3,000 people.
Interestingly, the city's economic development head, Jeff Reiter, said in a recent interview that Bettendorf is big into long-term planning for its growth.
Referring to population growth and development, Reiter said, “Instead of turning a blind eye to growth and development, we’re proactively planning for the future. We’re not only looking at the next five to 10 years but the next 15 to 50.”
The Browns say the city's "proactive" approach hasn't extended into the fire service.
'They let us down'
Matt Brown had asthma since he was a child — an affliction he shares with his mom, Jodi, but one that spared his three siblings.
Jodi Brown said her son had been working long hours, including weekends, and he was feeling stressed. So, she and her husband, Matt's dad, Robert, asked their son to move back home temporarily.
His last asthma attack struck after 2 a.m. on July 31. Both parents rushed to his side and tried to help ease his breathing.
Knowing the Surrey Heights Fire Station was just a couple minutes away, Jodi called 911 when the attack wasn't getting better.
"We had no idea the fire station wasn't open," she said. "We wouldn't have made the decision to call them. We would have gotten Matt into the car and driven him to the hospital ourselves.
"The much slower response time from downtown; the city should have been transparent about that. We were living with a false sense of security."
After a couple of days, it became clear Matthew was not going to recover. His parents agreed to donate his organs, and he passed away on August 2.
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"I just feel we were so let down by the city," his mom said, tears soaking her cheeks. "I wonder how many other people have died or suffered, because response time is so slow?
"They let us down, and my son had to pay for it."
The Browns have advice for other Bettendorf families as they wait to hear what the City Council intends to do about low staffing numbers and high response times.
"When you call 911, ask where they're coming from," Jodi Brown said. "Ask for an ETA. It may be faster to get your family member to the hospital yourself."
Slow to change
Almost four years ago, Bettendorf first started staffing its State Street Fire Station.
Until then, the city's two full-time fire companies both responded out of the Spruce Hills station, which is a considerable distance from the heavy growth corridor in the city's northeast.
Scott Webster is alderman in the 5th Ward, which includes the Surrey Heights Station. He said he was one who pushed for the full staffing of the downtown fire house, Station 1.
The city managed to get it in full operation without hiring more firefighters, he said. It was accomplished instead by promoting existing firefighters to ranks that created new command positions.
And now Webster wants the city to find a way to staff Station 4 — Surrey Heights.
"We asked Steve (Chief Knorrek) what it would take to fully staff it; to get it to 100 percent perfect," Webster said. "That number was 12."
Last fall, the City Council advanced the hiring of six more firefighters to the budget for fiscal year 2020-2021, though the funding is not guaranteed. By supplementing the new hires with volunteers, Surrey Heights could be in full operation.
"I've always been a supporter of staffing that station," the alderman said.
After Matthew Brown's parents told their story to the City Council on Aug. 20, the fire chief was asked to prepare a report that would help aldermen make a decision about future staffing. The chief was asked to look into the possibility of getting more coverage help on the medical-response side from Medic EMS, Webster said. The report is to include data on response time.
Budget impact will, as always, be a major consideration.
"If we just fully staffed Surrey Heights tomorrow with 12 new firefighters, that would cost $1.2 million," Webster said. "That's roughly 5 percent added onto a general fund budget of $25 million. Of that budget, $22 million already goes to public safety."
Jodi Brown, Matthew's mom, said paying for sufficient fire and police protection is the price of growth.
While Webster said the staffing struggles are "an urban-sprawl problem," city officials have long been aware of the pace of Bettendorf's growth and have been boastful at times of their ability to keep up and plan accordingly.
Why the delay?
One question city officials have been unwilling or unable to answer is why the response time to the Browns' house was almost 11 minutes.
On a timed drive of the route last week from the State Street station to the Brown home off Valley View Drive at 12:30 in the afternoon, driving the speed limit and stopping at two red lights, it took just under nine minutes. Asked why it took the fire department, responding in the middle of the night with lights and sirens, about two minutes longer, neither the fire chief nor the alderman could supply an answer.
"Answers are one of the things we're after," Jodi Brown said. "More important, though, is change. We don't want this to happen to another person."
Knorrek, the fire chief, said he is looking into like-sized cities in Iowa that also use volunteer firefighters to try to reach a reasonable staffing level.
"Ours is definitely low, compared to others," he said. "The volunteer program has been a good program. Of the 67 volunteers the fire department has had, including the current six at Surrey Heights, 44 have gone to work at other fire departments as career firefighters. Three have been hired by Bettendorf.
"We would prefer to supplement the volunteers with paid staff. The volunteers don't always have the time and experience."
Alderman Webster, meanwhile, said he is looking forward to the chief's upcoming report.
"We need that report first," he said. "We need to fully understand. I'm trying to solve the problem. I think a majority of us are."
The Brown family is counting on it.