How the Town of Delta Saved Its Fire Department
Resurrection is a big job
Delta, Iowa, used to have a lot of things. It used to have 19 buildings downtown. It used to have a high school. There used to be a gas station and next to it, a real nice restaurant where you could get a good pork tenderloin. It used to have a covered bridge made of bur oak. All those things are gone now. Only nine of the original buildings remain.
What Delta does still have, it holds on to. There’s Delta grocery, owned by Dixie Shipley, where people gather to reminisce and maybe buy a Coke and a candy bar. Everyone just calls the place Dixie’s. And it has the fire department, which Delta almost lost in 2020.
Jim Carey (one “r” — not the actor) isn’t from Delta exactly. But he lived there for most of his childhood and went to high school there, and his parents owned a bar downtown (another thing Delta lost). Most of his family is from New Jersey, and he went out East for a few years after high school before moving back. Delta is the kind of place where, if your grandparents didn’t live here, you are an outsider.
In 2019, Jim was a firefighter on the town’s all-volunteer crew, and he convinced the former fire chief and the fire board to let him run things. “I told them they got nothing to lose,” Jim tells me. We are drinking coffee in the fire department, which used to be the post office, and I’ve been petting Molly the cat — cross-eyed, long-haired and named after one of the first female firefighters on the force.
I went to Delta to learn how Jim turned the fire department around. I am tired of writing so many bad stories about Iowa. I am looking for something good.
Delta isn’t the only town facing down the closure of its fire station. People are leaving rural towns. As of 2012, 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas; in the year 2000, rural counties represented 79 percent of the population. And rural Americans tend to be older than those in urban areas. That can make it tough to run a fire department. In Iowa, 90 percent of fire departments are run on a volunteer basis. The National Fire Prevention organization notes that, because of the distances fires and the fire department, “Fire death rates in rural areas are very high. Additionally, loss of property and livestock have an extreme emotional and economic impact on residents in the local area.”
How do you take something on the brink of death and bring it back to life? Resurrection is a big job.
What Jim achieved was not a miracle; it was just hard work — hard work that no one else wanted or was around to do. Jim owns a painting company, so his work for the fire department is his second job. When he took over the fire department, he and his wife went through its files and got the paperwork organized, which helped them find some money they didn’t know the department had. They applied for grants and started some fundraisers, selling t-shirts and hosting a spaghetti supper. Also, Jim made a rule: no drinking on your shift. Anyone who smells like liquor is turned away.
He told me that Delta Fire used to have a reputation for not being cooperative when they were called out to help a neighboring city with a fire, so they stopped getting called. And grants and funding are often decided by how many fires a department gets called out to.
So that was another thing Jim changed — when Delta is called out to a fire, they do what they’re asked. Last year, Jim tells me, they responded to 23 fires. This year, by May they’d responded to 26. That means more departments were calling them out for mutual aid. And maybe if they can prove they’ve gone out to more fires, they can qualify for more grant money.
Jim is also working to get the team EMS certified. He told me that he was at one fire where someone died who might have lived if help had arrived sooner. This is one of the reasons keeping the fire department is so crucial, he tells me.
Jim also has worked to help solve arsons. He’s not an official investigator; he just notices things and takes the time to talk to people. He tells me his team responded to a fire in a field and he stopped to talk to some people who told him hay bales kept getting set on fire. He talked to more people and got a description of a truck seen near some of those fires. He gave that information to the sheriff.
When I asked him if there was a protocol for reporting arson, he shrugs. Sometimes people are busy, sometimes things get lost, and sometimes people just decide to not ask questions.
But Jim is noticing and he says he hopes to do a little more.
Jim also recruits volunteers. Before, he tells me, volunteer firefighting was a club and you couldn’t get in unless you were tight with the old boys. Now, Jim tries to make everyone feel welcome. In a small Midwestern town where histories run deep and grudges run deeper, he has to tell people to leave the personal stuff at home.
Jim loves Delta. He and his wife, Faye, started a “Forgotten Delta” Facebook page where people share memories and pictures. Jim wants to revitalize the downtown too, and maybe apply for a few grants. He also wants to rebuild the covered bridge and give people a reason to veer off the highway and come visit Delta. But, he says, some people don’t want to rebuild it because they don’t see it burn down all over again. But Jim tells me that’s the point. He’s not gonna let it burn.
When I look at the “Forgotten Delta” Facebook page, it’s clear how much residents love the town. If anyone talks bad about Dixie’s store (as one woman did in the comments) they shut it down.
Dixie began working at the store 61 years ago when her husband came home from filing his taxes and told her he had bought a store. She remembers everything that Delta has lost. And she tells me all the places that used to be — a bank, a church, a drug store.
At one point, when I’m sitting in Dixie’s store listening to her reminisce about the town. She references a tornado that blew through the town in 1984 and left it in ruins. “That’s the last time the newspapers cared about us,” she says. I tell her that’s the worst part of my job. But I’m here because I’m looking for a good story, and the revitalization of the fire department is a good story. “Jim’s worked hard,” she says.
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