Just trading hats

Tony Roberts and Nate Schwickerath trade their fire hats. Roberts trades his fire chief hat for Schwickerath’s plain firefighter hat.

Tony Roberts and Nate Schwickerath trade their fire hats. Roberts trades his fire chief hat for Schwickerath’s plain firefighter hat.

By Marcie Klomp

Like a game of Boggle, the Lime Springs Fire Department was shaken up and mixed around. The members are all staying the same, it’s just the positions that will be changing.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, Tony Roberts traded his white fire chief helmet for a black firefighter helmet. He is now “just one of the guys!” Taking over as chief is Nate Schwickerath, a two-year veteran of the department with eight years of experience.

Schwickerath volunteered for four years with the Tiffin Fire Dept. (a suburb of Iowa City). He was secretary/treasurer when he left to live at Rock Rapids, Iowa. He joined its volunteer department for two years. Then he moved back to Howard County.

He is currently the firefighter with the highest level of training, being FireFighter 1 and 2 trained. He also has some college-level courses in fire science.

Roberts is trading his hat after six years as chief, although he has been with the department since 1986, when he moved back home from Texas. “Porky (Gary White) recruited me!”

Roberts worked under some great leaders, including Keith Wherry, Steve Kraft, Neil Mahr, Sam Shroyer and Al Vaalemoen, before he took over in 2007.

One of his first challenges was trying to sort out records. Shorty after starting, there was a leak in the fire chief’s office that drenched the computer and file cabinet. Roberts had to sweet-talk his wife, Rita, into helping him with the overwhelming task of starting over.

“Rita keeps telling Nate she hopes we’re leaving him better than what we started with!” The couple received a lot of help from Chester Fire Chief Jeff Wendel in figuring out which reports were due.

Since being on the department, Roberts said there have been a lot of bad days. “Accidents and fires. These are not good days. When you go to an accident and nobody dies, it’s a good day.” He admitted the worst accident he was involved with was the Leff family where a father and two young daughters perished. The former chief said debriefing is very important in situations like that.

Roberts said he had been thinking of stepping down since summer. “I thought it was time to get a new look. New blood. And somebody else’s prospective. I was in a rut and I had a guy who was interested. I’m not leaving. I’ll watch, and I’ll help. I’m not going to leave. I’m too involved to let it go.”

Schwickerath appreciates all the work Roberts has put into the department and hopes to continue giving great service to the area.

Although he doesn’t have experience as chief, he does have experience—and lots of it! While at Tiffin, the department went on an average of 250 fire calls a year. He admits that’s much different than this rural area. “That’s the challenge. The best training is going to calls. It keeps the volunteers involved.”





Those volunteers on the Lime Springs Fire Department include Tary Kolek as assistant chief, Kenny Gronwoldt as safety officer and Casey Sebastian as training officer. Other firefighters are Don Hruska, Mike Leverson, Bill Mahr, Greg Mahr, Travis Mahr, Eric Munkel, Jason Munkel, Richard Nagele, Tom Roberts, Ted Roberts and Nate Widell.

The new chief already has some goals for the department. “I want to do more training. We also need to continue to update the equipment.”

He explained the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is pushing department to be up-to-date. “We need almost $1 million in equipment (including trucks and gear) to stay up to their standards.”

He wants to look at getting grants for new equipment and keep striving for the beset.

He said one of the hardest parts of the job is knowing all your neighbors. “When something happens and you know them, it’s hard. It was easier in Tiffin, where I didn’t know everyone.”

That may be true, but a victim would probably rather have a friend rather than a stranger be there during one of the most difficult times of their life.

Schwickerath claims he never thought much about joining a fire department until he moved to Tiffin, part-way through his college years. “I joined as a way to meet people. I spent a lot of time training. If I wasn’t studying, I was at the station.” That kind of attitude and energy is infectious and will definitely keep his men “fired up” about being on the department!


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